(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2004)
On my way to the Story Inn, my cell phone quits working. Its only message: "Lost service."
True, this is not unusual in a place like this, tucked into a beautiful valley in Brown County, Indiana, far from any phone tower's reach. But add that I'm driving on a curving, dipping two-lane road, blacktop shiny from the misty day, past a cemetery, and places with names like Gnaw Bone and Earle Hollow. Gnarled, bare trees are scattered among the rust-and-mustard-colored ones that still hold their leaves. I'll admit, the drive is picturesque, as the throngs of visitors drawn to this south-central Indiana County, known for scenics and artists, would attest. But today, there's an eeriness made stronger by the mist, the stark trees and the lack of instantly available communication with the outside world. Perhaps it's just me, my nerves a little edgy because I've heard that the Story Inn is haunted, and in a matter of minutes I'll be settled into the Blue Lady Room, named for the inn's reputed ghost.
I pull into the tiny town of Story, which consists of the Story Inn. That's right--every single one of the town's buildings is part of the inn. Founded in 1851, Story once bustled as the largest settlement in the area. After the Great Depression hit, people abandoned Story and the rest of Brown County in search of jobs. This exodus eventually worked in the town's favor. Not only did the community remain architecturally intact, the deserted land around it became the Hoosier National Forest and Brown County State Park, two pretty expanses of rolling, tree-covered hills. Today, on 23 acres nestled between those two forested entities, Story is a beautifully preserved cluster of structures, from the town founder's homestead to the old sawmill. All are now the 14 rooms and cottages that make up Story Inn lodging.
The Blue Lady is one of four rooms on the second floor of the old general store, the outside of which hasn't changed much since it was built about 100 years ago. The rusty tin exterior hides an upscale main-floor restaurant, where cloth napkins and fine wines refine charmingly creaky hardwood floors and the original pressed-tin ceiling. The restaurant is a destination in its own right, drawing diners from hours away for its blend of European and southern Indiana cooking. Below it is a tavern, whose courtyard is popular with horseback riders fresh off the state park trail that ends in Story, and motorcyclists on scenic drives. I had some time to check out my room--white walls, antique furniture including quilt-covered bed, no phone or TV.
I headed downstairs to meet two of the four owners, Rick and Angie Hofstetter, for dinner.
I'm open-minded about ghosts, neither a true believer nor a nonbeliever. Rick and Angie fall on either side of me. "I'm not a believer," Rick, a lawyer and business law professor, states bluntly over a glass of red wine. Angie, a literature professor who's worked at the inn for more than a decade, believes. She says anyone who's been here long enough has experienced the mischievous ghost: heard skirts rustling, smelled cherry tobacco, felt odd sensations and even--get this--a pinch on the rear.
She's speaking from experience; swears that one time, when alone in the building rolling out dough in the kitchen, she felt a strong and distinct pinch on her backside. She says others have too, particularly when baking. "Rick didn't believe me. He thinks I'm nuts," she says, sending a sidelong look his way. "But there really is something. It's a haunted building, but it's friendly."
We move on to dinner. Mine is goulash, the tasty nightly special created by Head Chef and Owner Frank Mueller, a German native with about four decades of European cooking under his belt. I listen and eat, as Rick the nonbeliever lays this story on me: Every time a guest book in any of the rooms is filled, it's retired and a new one is put out. He found old Blue Lady Room guest books in the attic from long before the ghost was openly talked about or the Internet's easy, worldwide connectivity existed. Ghost accounts chronicled in the pages of different books, written by different people from different cities, were consistent.
Curious. As that information sinks in, Angie and Rick point across the room to an old black-and-white portrait of a straight-faced woman, hair pulled tightly into a bun, that hangs behind the check-in counter. No one can figure out who she is. On more than one occasion, when people have casually commented on the woman's lack of physical beauty, strange things have happened. The credit card processing machine quit working. The lights blew out. Once, Rick was standing right there when a friend made a disparaging remark about the woman, and the portrait immediately fell from its secure place on the wall, landing face down. Finally, Rick gives the ghost stories as much credence as he can muster: "There are inexplicable things that happen here," he concedes.
By dinner's end, I'm convinced. So much so that I hold my tongue as I walk past the portrait and up the slanted stairs to the Blue Lady Room. Still, I turn on the blue light, said to summon the ghost, and pluck the latest guest book from the nightstand. I drift asleep amid antiques and lace, reading tales of strange happenings where I now lie.
One-thirty a.m. I jolt awake and quickly scan the room. There are blue shadows just outside my window. Once my eyes fully adjust to being open, I realize the shadows are caused by the bluish tint of the backyard lighting. I close my eyes and fall back asleep.
Two-thirty a.m. Again, I wake suddenly. Panicky thoughts reel in my mind. What if I see her? What would she do? What would I do? With no phone in my room and no cell service, I certainly couldn't call anyone.
I quickly remind myself that all accounts of the Blue Lady have been benign. I haven't felt or seen a thing. The room is intact. Yes, I'm just being paranoid. I shut off the blue light and, eventually, fall back to sleep.
The next time I wake, morning light filters through the lace curtains. I wash, then head down to the dining room for a breakfast of eggs Benedict and strong coffee. When I check out, I eye the portrait and consider insulting it just to see what would happen. Instead, I conclude she's not that bad looking and tell myself that's the reason I still choose not to offer any sort of negative remark.
On the drive out of town, I can't decide whether I'm relieved or disappointed that I didn't have a Blue Lady experience. I did have a great Story Inn experience: a thoroughly enjoyable getaway with its interesting history, pretty setting and top-notch restaurant. So enjoyable that I have a similar waffling between relief and disappointment when I emerge from the valley and my cell phone service returns.
The Story Inn is on State-135, south of Nashville, Indiana. (800) 881-1183 The Story Inn
Other Haunts to Try
Many inns around the Midwest have stories of resident ghosts. Here are some that come recommended to us. For more on the subject, consult the book Haunted Inns of America by Terry L. Smith and Mark Jean.
Bullock Hotel Deadwood, South Dakota. Storied ghost: the town's hard-nosed first sheriff, Seth Bullock. (800/336-1876). Bullock Hotel Deadwood
Inn at 835 Springfield, Illinois. Storied ghost: Bell Miller, a florist who first developed the inn as luxury apartments. (888/217-4835). The Inn at 835
Lemp Mansion St. Louis, Missouri. Storied ghost: a variety, including the Lavender Lady, one Mrs. Lemp, who often wore the color. (314/664-8024). The Lemp Mansion
Rider's Inn Painesville, Ohio. Storied ghost: Suzanne, a betrayed wife of Revolutionary War Sgt. Rider. (440/942-2742). Rider's Inn