HOUSTON, Minn. – In a remote and creepy crevice in the Root River bluffs, not far from the long-abandoned Loretta House stage coach station, is Ghost Hollow. Although not many folks visit the place, yarns still abound around Houston County that a character roams Ghost Hollow after something like 170 years or so. Either he’s seeking revenge or vindication. Perhaps both. Over the years the story has morphed, but most tales involve the theft of a horse, a posse, and a noose. A recurrent theme is that the ghost is that of a black man who was hanged perfunctorily despite professing it wasn’t he who stole the horse. In fact, as the story goes, he didn’t even have a horse when he was found, but the mob of German and Norwegian farmers, all white, were intent on leaving a lesson. There are no records of what happened. When the reality if what they had done set set in, it was not something the lynch mob much wanted to talk about. But the whispers didn’t die over the generations. Nor, does it seem, has the ghost.
So where’s Ghost Hollow? “You can’t get there from here.” as the saying goes. At least not easily. It’s a half-mile long and stream-less dent in the bluffs up Storer Valley Creek. The hollow is surrounded by private property. The owners aren’t keen about trespassers. Even so, hunters sometimes bravely venture there. So too an occasional adventurer. As far as we know, they always come back out, some with eerie accounts. The hollow has a perpetual musky mist under a thick arbor canopy. It’s darkish. Brush and briars make trekking difficult. Although the hollow is unnaturally still, the winds in the blufftops flow and ebb and penetrate hauntingly into the hollow. Sometimes they howl.
A travelers roost
Most of the Ghost Hollow stories begin at Loretta House. In 1856, the Minnesota Stage Company, a territorial monopoly, set up lines that connected the bountiful new grain fields around St. Peter with St. Anthony Falls (later Minneapolis) and Winona and LaCrosse. A farmer at the South Ridge above present-day LaCrescent, Seth Lore, was pleased for a few shekels to provide water for the teams of stage coach horses and meals and beds for travelers – and also for mule-skinners who drove wagon trains of grain to the Mississippi River, a journey of several days, often a week, and then returned with supplies for inland points. It was long, difficult trail, not say also sweaty and often dusty. Man and beast, ladies too, needed a break These stage coaches weighed two tons. The grain wagons were even heavier. All were pulled by teams of four, often six horses. There also were walkers. Folks without a horse or wagon hiked their to town and back, for many of them , 10 to 20 miles. They often would spend nights in barns and out-shacks along the way.To accommodate travelers, mule-skinners and walkers, Seth Lore expanded his cabin, which at first was only 18 by 20 feet. A cook room was built out back. The cabin itself was only three rooms with a loft for additional sleepers.
After three years Lore built what became known as Loretta House, which variously was also called Lorette House. It was for the time — a two-story addition with a footprint of 600 square feet, with an ideal location on the Minnesota Territorial Trail. A giant stone fireplace dominated one wall and made the place especially hospitable. Loretta House won a federal designation as a post office. Locals dropped in for mail and stayed awhile to catch up on local gossip as well as distant news from travelers. Lore, by now a hotelier, sometimes had 70 guests at a time, although not all were over-nighters. Some details have been lost in history, but undoubtedly there were locals who set up handy blacksmithing and wagon repair services at Loretta House. It’s all long gone now. Traveling by stage coach had ended by 1879, when railroads had become the preferred mode for hauling grain and people. This was all near what locals call “the south ridge,” near the current landmark – the WXOW television complex.
Then one night
Loretta House was abuzz one night about a missing horse. Somebody noted that a hapless foot traveler, a black man, had been seem around. Maybe he stole the horse. Should somebody fetch the sheriff? No, that would take too long. The speculation fringed on frenzy. And became more so. The crowd set out to find the black man. They did. He was sleeping in an abandoned barn. There was no horse. And the man denied any wrongdoing. But the kangaroo court had its mind made up. They hauled the poor fellow to a nearby hollow. In the dark, the night parted with their torches, they hanged him. The spirit of that innocent man is said to wander the hollow still. Except now the shameful place has a name — Ghost Hollow. This could have been as early as 1856, before the Civil War, or perhaps as late as 1879, when stage coaches stopped running and Loretta House ceased to be. Who knows for sure the truth of what happened the night of the missing horse anymore. For sure it seems that the posse’s victim may still haunt Ghost Hollow in a quest for justice for those who liquored up on whisky at Loretta House and hanged him so many decades ago.
A persisting legend
A local historian, Lee Epps, rounded up as many accounts as he could about Ghost Hollow for a Halloween piece in the Fillmore County Journal in 2022. One of his sources, David Beckman, recalled from boyhood that his father told the story of a hanging in the 1940s Beckman never ventured there. “I didn’t want anything to o with Ghost Hollow,” he told Epps. Others in the Beckman clan have. When he was 12 or thereabouts and fully knowing the legend, Mike Beckman, and his older brother ventured hunting up the forbidden coulee. This as in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Mike recalls stopping when he felt an eerie presence. His brother, with the macho of a 16-year-old, scoffed at his younger brother. Mike quickly caught up, not wanting to be left behind with a ghost about. Even so, the hollow has its lure. Mike says he saw the most antlered buck he’s ever, ever seen on another visit up Ghost Hollow. By the time he raised his rifle, it was gone. As if it were bever there.
Variations on the tale
n his quest for Ghost Hallow stories, Epps suggests the period of the vigilante lynching Loretta House probably was between 1871 and 1878. Epps found a plat map that showed a Storer Valley Road, a wagon trail, ran through Ghost Hollow. The road was rerouted at some point and is now overgrown. Perhaps no one wanted to go that way anymore. Epps’ investigation found variations of the legend, which are quoted here:
> First legend: A man took his own life by hanging in Ghost Hollow. One version has him driving a wagon and team of Belgians to the site. It was said he and the horses could still be seen late at night driving through the woods. The reason for the suicide, if ever known, is lost in time.
> Second legend: A black man was found in the area and hanged in Ghost Hollow. Was there a crime alleged? No details have endured, only the legend.
> Third legend: When neighbors gathered after a horse theft, someone mentioned the perpetrator might be the vagabond or highwayman, likely seen at the Loretta House, the main stopping point for stage coaches along the Territorial Road. Too much time would be lost if the sheriff was notified, so the farmers searched and found the suspect sleeping in an abandoned barn, but there was no horse. The man denied any wrongdoing, but he was found guilty by a kangaroo court, taken to Ghost Hollow and hanged. The ghost of that innocent man was said to wander the “ravines and mounds of Ghost Hollow” haunting all he encountered in his search for justice.
> Fourth legend: In 2013, a 95-year-old man said an ancestor, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, owned an area grain mill where a black employee was accused of having an intimate relationship with the daughter of the owner, possibly resulting in a pregnancy. The employee was apprehended and hanged in Ghost Hollow.
Stories from Ghost Hollow
There also is an account in the early 1940s by 7-year-old Alvin Jorgenson, son of the owner of the coulee. One evening when the lad went to bring the cows home for milking, he ventured into Ghost Hollow, where he saw a ghost and raced home – without the cows. He vowed never to fetch the cows again unless he could see them from home in an open pasture. A common occurrence recounted by several farmers over the years has been the disappearance of livestock in or near Ghost Hollow, especially newborn calves. Thorough searches revealed nothing – no hide, no hair, no bones. Later, land owner Dan Gavin saw on his trail camera the carcass of a dead deer. When he went to investigate, he found nothing – no bones, no blood, no remains. The stories picked up traction when a former Houston County surveyor, Dick Walter, wrote a booklet about “a real place called Ghost Hollow by all the locals.” At age 11 or 12, Walter had heard stories from neighbors about Ghost Hollow being a “noisy place, maybe from the wind” but also “sometimes on a perfectly calm day, a herd of cattle would come stampeding out of Ghost Hollow for no apparent reason.” There also are the private memoirs of David. H. Beckman: “The Legends of Ghost Hollow.”