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Happy Halloween: Some Des Moines businesses face ghosts every day


The first ghost sighting at the Butler Mansion occurred in early 1990, just months after Liz Newell and Jack Kragie bought the building to house their advertising and public relations agency, Kragie Newell Inc.

Newell remembers being told that a creative director for the firm was working late. She was alone in the building. She walked up the home’s central ramp to Newell’s office, which was located in the late Earl Butler’s bedroom. As she was dropping off some materials on Newell’s desk, she saw a hazy figure in the office’s bathroom.

It appeared to be a woman, dressed in a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around her head as though she had just stepped from the shower. Thinking that it was Newell, the creative director quickly left the room. Newell wasn’t anywhere near the office that night.

“She thought it was me, just getting out of the shower – that’s how real it was,” Newell said. “That was the first one.”

Several months later, a woman was dropping off her son at the mansion, which is located on Fleur Drive just south of Gray’s Lake. He was an intern at Kragie-Newell.

As he walked into the building, the mother noticed that a woman, again dressed in a bathrobe with a towel around her head, was looking at her through the window in the building’s kitchen, which was located beneath Newell’s office. The woman, who didn’t work at the agency, had never heard the story about the first sighting.

As Newell recalls, the woman figured that a commercial was being filmed. There was no commercial filmed that day. Employees at the firm, which is now called Integer Group, believe it was another sighting of the ghost they say haunts the mansion.

“Whoever she is, she’s very friendly,” Newell said. “She’s at peace with the current residents.”

Integer employees say they believe the ghost is a former member of Earl Butler’s house staff, and could possibly have been his mistress. Butler’s main occupation was managing the fortune his father created as president and general manager of Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., a predecessor to International Harvester Inc. Earl and his wife, Fannie, were retired when they built the house in 1937.

In addition to the sightings, other employees have reported hearing footsteps and slamming doors, even when they know they are the only ones in the building. Strange incidents happen several times a year, according to Xan Charlson and Juli Magnusson, who currently work for Integer in the mansion.

Ghost stories abound in Polk County. The most common places to see ghosts, according to the American Ghost Society, include battlefields, crime scenes, hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, schools, churches, theaters, cemeteries and homes – places where human emotions run high,

In the Halloween spirit, the Business Record decided to do a bit of ghost hunting in search of businesses that might be occupying haunted offices. Plenty of stories were found. Some of the best follow.

Haunting may run in the Butler family. Earl’s older brother, E.K., built a large home on Grand Avenue in 1923 known as the Butler House. Current owners Lauren Kernan Smith and her husband, Clark, operate a bed-and-breakfast inn there called the Butler House on Grand.

The pair bought the home in 1996. Within the first two weeks, Lauren said, she was doing laundry in the laundry room when the first strange thing happened to her.

“I was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer and I felt this cold air come up behind me,” she said. “I turned around and this clammy feeling came over me.”

The home was divided into apartments then, and several tenants lived there. Items that belonged to the tenants were occasionally found in each other’s rooms, without explanation.

One tenant was fearful of sleeping late and used to ask Lauren to wake her up if it appeared that she would be late for work, Lauren said. She was never late while she lived in the Butler House.

The late-sleeping tenant moved out of the Butler House to another apartment and, shortly afterward, slept too late one morning. In a subsequent conversation with Lauren, she said she had liked living at the Butler House because she could always count on a tree branch blowing in the wind outside her bedroom to knock against her window, waking her up, Lauren said.

“I told her that there was no tree outside her bedroom,” she said.

The Carter House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Des Moines’ historic Sherman Hill neighborhood, has a similar window-related story to tell. Several years ago, a couple was staying in a room on the second floor. They were kept awake throughout the night by shutters slamming against the side of the house. Owners Rick and Cindy Nelson were surprised to hear of the experience the next morning – there were no shutters on the house at that time.

However, when the Nelsons undertook a major renovation at the 125-year-old home several years later, they removed the siding. Underneath they found a pair of old-fashioned shutters, right outside the room where the couple had slept.

“They couldn’t possibly have moved,” Rick Nelson said.

The home is one of the stops on Magical History Tours, a popular tour of Des Moines’ scariest places that began in January. The company’s chief executive, David Ross, said as many as 100 people crowd his tours on weekends and that they are booked solid through November.

One of the other homes Ross’ tours visit is the former Henry Wallace House, located at 756 16th St. The home was built by Henry Wallace, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. who served as vice president of the United States, among several other duties. His home is reportedly haunted by his wife.

Items in the home have been found in different rooms, with no explanation as to how they were moved. Strange things have happened with lamps in one room of the house.

“It’s a little spooky to go in there,” Ross said. “Several people have run out of the house and not wanted to go back in.”

Simpson College in Indianola is reputed to be haunted. The legend says that in the late 1800s, a woman tripped while walking down from the third floor of College Hall. She broke her neck during the fall and died. On every Friday the 13th at midnight, you supposedly can see her reflection in the third-floor window if you stand on the college seal.

The Crawford Mansion, located at 2203 Grand Ave., is another old Des Moines building that may have some ghosts living there.

The mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recently was sold by money management firm IMG to Marc Humphrey, a lawyer who has in turn sold his building, located at 4300 Grand.

Des Moines banker R.A. Crawford, who lived in the residence until the mid-1930s, built the nearly 9,500-square-foot building in 1896, according to Tim Sharpe of Sharpe Gibbs Commercial Real Estate Services.

What makes the mansion a probable haunting candidate, in addition to its age, is the fact that it housed a funeral home for decades before it was converted to office space.

“Delivery people have asked me about it,” said Wendy Diekema, who works in the building. “Previous businesses here had complained about things moving. We’ve never seen anything like that.”

Hoyt Sherman Place, one of Des Moines’ most popular historic attractions, has an area in its theater where “when you stand near it, you can just feel the hair on the back of your neck rise,” said Ali Brackett, a marketing and events coordinator there. “We know Hoyt’s here. He watches over us.”

The house was built in 1887 by Hoyt Sherman himself, who also constructed Des Moines’ first post office and bank and helped found Equitable of Iowa Insurance Co.

Brackett said several workers were looking over digital pictures of the theater one day and discovered an image on one of the pictures of an outline of a human being standing up.

“It was just one of those things where you look at the picture and your mouth drops to the floor,” she said.

Other common paranormal occurrences include doors slamming, even when they haven’t been closed, she said.

Aside from modern-day hauntings, Des Moines has its share of grim history. In his book “Ghosts of Polk County,” author Tom Welch describes several hauntings in the Des Moines area, including a story about the ghost of University Street.

According to Welch’s book, the “fuel oil ghost” has been seen periodically throughout the past 110 years, most recently in 1945.

Apparently, a person died in the 1880s somewhere along University Street “close to downtown” after their kerosene-soaked clothes caught fire, Welch wrote. Witnesses who claimed they had seen the ghost reported seeing a cloud-like form that carried with it a strong kerosene odor.

In no instance did reporting turn up stories about violent or angry ghosts. Most workers who said they believe their businesses are haunted went out of their way to explain how nice their ghost is.

“She’s a very good ghost,” said the Butler House’s Lauren Smith, who believes the ghost haunting her bed-and-breakfast is E.K. Butler’s wife. “Mrs. Butler is happy and has a family living here again.”

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