Ghosts reportedly protect historic buildings

By Raymond Castile

Wispy gray vapors surround John Dengler, wafting through the Colonial atmosphere of his 200-year-old home.

The apparitions usually emanate from a smoking pipe or lit cigar in the tobacco shop Dengler operates on the building's ground floor.

But Dengler is not blowing smoke when he talks about the ghost that haunts his house.

"My theory is that the ghost can hang around here as long as he behaves himself," said Dengler, 77.

In 1980, Dengler and his wife, Selba Tru Dengler, purchased a Federal-style three-story brick building at 700 S. Main St. in St. Charles. The Denglers restored the structure, known as the Farmers' Tavern during the 1800s, when it served as both inn and saloon. Today, it houses the John Dengler Tobacconist store, Country Stitchin' gift shop, and a few upstairs renters.

One of Dengler's tenants seems to be a 19th Century Frenchman who has not paid rent in at least 150 years. The ghost may have introduced himself to one of Dengler's paying tenants, Country Stitchin' owner Peggy Behm.

The two met on a Saturday morning about 10 years ago, said Behm, 65. She was making her second trip up the wooden staircase to the second-floor parlor, retrieving supplies to stock her booth during the Festival of the Little Hills. Behm paused at the top of the stairs.

"I felt something on my left shoulder, something light brushing against it," Behm said. "Then I heard someone whisper directly in my ear. It said, `Peggy.' I was frightened. I ran down the stairs and into the store, where I found Tru. I told her John was playing a joke on me. But John was not in the building. We were the only two people there. She just laughed and told me it was a ghost."

Dengler said his wife, who died in 1998, experienced strange things while painting the parlor in 1980. She would be listening to news radio when "peculiar symphonic music" would overtake the signal for several minutes," Dengler said.

"After four days of the radio changing by itself, Tru heard a baby crying from somewhere in the house," Dengler said. "Then she heard a Frenchman's voice trying to sooth it. She could speak a little French, but she could not understand what he was saying."

The mischievous ghosts seemed to hide his wife's belongings, Dengler said. She would walk out of the room, then return to find the missing items lying in plain sight. On one occasion, she may have caught the invisible bandits in the act.

"It was during this period that Tru told me she saw her pack of cigarettes float off the table," Dengler said.

"The pack was lying on the table. She said they floated up off the table. I'm almost sure she said they floated across the room. My wife was a level-headed, pragmatic sort of person, always cool and collected. This did not unnerve her."

But Dengler said his daughters, Laura Muench and Anne Albin, did become unnerved when they heard footsteps during the night.

"They got really scared and uptight about it," he said.

Muench said she was 23 years old in 1982 when she and her sister were living in the third-floor north bedroom.

"Sometimes when we were in bed, or sitting up talking, we heard footsteps go down, then up the stairs," Muench said. "They sounded like a normal person, not heavy boots. This happened maybe twice a week, around 10 p.m. or so."

An even more disturbing incident occurred a year later, Muench said. She and her grandmother were alone at night in the building. Muench was standing in the kitchen on the second floor while her snoring grandmother slept in a nearby bedroom.

"I stood in front of the refrigerator and opened it up," Muench said.

"This wicked laughter started. It was like something out of a horror movie. It lasted about 10 seconds. As soon as I closed the refrigerator, the laughing stopped."

Muench said she peaked her head in her grandmother's room. She was snoring, sound asleep.

"Then I heard faint laughing again," Muench said. "It was not my grandmother, because she was snoring at the same time. I flew down the stairs and waited for someone else to come home."

Muench took part in a 1994 seance using a Ouija board operated by the son of Sandy Lopane, co-owner of Native Traditions on S. Main Street.

"We asked the ghost if it was a nice ghost or a mean ghost," Muench said. "We found out it was a nice ghost. Nothing has happened since the seance, knock on wood."

Dengler said he does not believe in ghosts. Even so, he has theories about their identities. Dengler said his research indicates that the French ghost may be Antoine Marechal, one of the building's original owners. There may be a second ghost, perhaps a young girl. Dengler said a 19th Century woman named Lizette Waye lost her 8-year-old daughter while living in the building.

Several shop owners and tenants on Main Street have reported unexplained phenomena over the years, Dengler said. One explanation may be that the 400 block of South Main was built over the 1789 St. Charles Borromeo cemetery, Dengler said.

"They were supposed to have moved the bodies in the 1800s, but some bones were found when they were digging the foundation of a building in the 1980s," Dengler said.

Does a chunk of Main Street rest on a bed of forgotten graves? That could explain the ghost child that supposedly haunts Patches Button Shoppe, or the poltergeist that reportedly used to plague the St. Charles Vintage House and Wine Garden.

But can it explain Fred?

That is the pet name that Lopane assigned to the ghost that haunted 612 S. Main St., the former location of And Everything Nice, a store she operated with her husband. Fred may have been dead, but he was still kicking.

"Plaques would come off nails on the wall and fly across the room," Lopane said. "Once, a customer was standing away from a shelf that had a stuffed cat on it. The shelf was about waist level. The stuffed cat flew upward and hit her in the throat. The customer just stood there, shocked. She couldn't say anything. I told her, `it happens,' and she just ran out of the store.

"Another time, a man with a toddler was standing in the hall, waiting for his wife. Hanging on the wall was a heart-shaped woven wheat decoration. The man came running up to me all excited and said the weaving had floated off the wall and come to him. He grabbed it with his hand as it floated through the air.

"We used to hear explosions upstairs. We would look around to see what happened, expecting to see everything in flames, but there was nothing – no smoke, no damage, not even a smell.

"There was nothing except a neat little pile of torn up wallpaper lying on the floor in the middle of an upstairs room. It was like old-fashioned wallpaper, not like anything we had in the building. Twice we found a pile like that after the explosions."

In 1995, Lopane and her husband moved out of the 612 location and into 142 N. Main, where they opened Native Traditions, a name they kept when they later moved the store to 310 S. Main. Most of the paranormal activity took place in the original location, but one unsettling phenomenon occurred in all three.

"I would hear the phone ring twice, then when I went to answer it, I discovered that the handset was off the hook," Lopane said. "There was no way it could have rang, and no one else around to take it off the hook. Out of everything that happened, it was the phone thing that really gave me the willies."

During the 1994 seance in Dengler's building, Lopane discovered the Fred's true identity.

"We found out his name was Albert," she said. "He was a Confederate officer who had been imprisoned by the Union Army at what is now the Trailhead Brewery on Main Street. The building was used as a Union prison during the Civil War. We asked Albert if he had owned slaves. He said, `yes, as many as I could get my hands on.' We asked him what he was doing in our building. He said he was the `protector of the building.' That seems to be a running theme with ghosts. They stake out a territory and hold on to it."

Photos of John Dengler and his house taken by Raymond Castile, November 2004.

This story was originally published in the Suburban Journals of St. Charles County, Oct. 23, 2002. Used with permission..