Bentonsport, Iowa – A guest comes down the stairs after a night’s rest and approaches the owner of the historic inn. “Did you know this place is haunted?” she asks. The owner smiles, not because she thinks her guest is delusional, but because she’s heard it before. And far from being afraid, the guest seems more excited. They’re not scary, not malevolent, and not tortured. In fact, in life, the entities liked the place so much, they just didn’t want to leave.
There is an old saying among those who believe in the paranormal: Those who don’t believe in ghosts just haven’t met the right one yet. It doesn’t have to be the Hollywood version of a shrieking, blood-soaked monstrosity that’s out for revenge that makes believers. In many cases, something as small as a tugged shirt-sleeve or a sudden unexplainable drop in temperature can make a person question their certainty that nothing beyond this life exists. Of course, one of the biggest challenges is the question of where to find a place where experiences of the paranormal sort are more of the norm than not. In Iowa, there is such a place, and as luck would have it, it’s a bed and breakfast.
Built in 1846 as a hotel for steamboat travelers, the home was first called the “Ashland House.” The builder, William Robinson, hired exclusively Mormon builders who took several years to gather the materials. Eleven years after it opened its doors, the hotel was sold to Lewis and Nancy Mason, who re-christened it the Phoenix Hotel. However, their reputation for hospitality was so great that the people of Bentonsport took to calling it just “Mason House.” Part of the fame came from Nancy Mason’s insistence that every room hold a full cookie jar for weary travelers.
Over the next hundred-fifty-two years, the home saw numerous owners, floods, and remodeling. It also saw more than its fair share of tragedy. During the Civil War, it was used as a small military hospital, where undoubtedly many soldiers, while waiting for transport, died. It was also used, for a time, as a stop on the famous “Underground Railroad.” There were also several of the owners who died in the hotel, all of seemingly innocuous circumstances. The hotel even had one strange murder when a drunk guest, referred to by newspaper accounts as “Mr. Knapp,” tried to climb into a bed that wasn’t his and got a saber through the chest for his confusion.
The hotel remained in the Mason family until 1951 when Fannie Mason Kurtz died of natural causes in front of the fireplace. It was purchased by several families over the next fifty years, all of whom had their own paranormal experiences. In fact, one previous owner, a retired minister named McDermet, told stories of seeing Mary Mason Clark during renovations of the house. He also told of attempting to wallpaper the fifth room, and finding the wallpaper re-stripped every morning until he took the hint. The wallpaper sample book was found open to a certain sample, which he bought and put up, and there were no problems afterword. In 2001, Joy and Chuck Hanson purchased Mason House, and continue to run it as a bed and breakfast.
While Joy Hanson says they have at least five resident ghosts, the experiences of their non-permanent guests show those five are remarkably active, and there may be more. Guests tell the Hanson’s of their experiences all the time, and most of them have similar rings to them.
The first ghost that people report seeing is a young boy who stays on the landing. Though his identity is unknown, he appears often, and seems to be something of a trickster. He wears knickers, and appears to be waiting for someone. Nicknamed “George,” the boy likes to knock on doors before vanishing. He is also blamed for moving items from one room to another, and for often stealing the pins from alarm clocks to make them ring.
Another presence who appears to guests, but doesn’t seem to mean any harm, is described as an old woman in a white night gown who stays on the third floor’s south bedroom. She’s most often seen standing in the doorway to her room before disappearing. People who stay in the room below hers report hearing a squeaking rocking chair from above, as well as the sounds of many boxes being dropped and footsteps. Strange, considering the room is not occupied (or wasn’t at the time) and was used for storage. There was no rocking chair, but the retired minister who used to have his office in the room identified the woman as Mary Mason Clark.
In the dining room, people often get a welcoming feeling that goes well beyond the warmth of the fireplace. According to at least one psychic, it is none other than Fannie Mason Kurtz, the owner who died in front of the fireplace and whose body wasn’t discovered for three days. According to the psychic, Fannie is happy in Mason House, and simply doesn’t want to leave.
A fourth ghost manifests himself by way of what guests refer to as a feeling of dread. With no knowledge of what happened in one particular room, many guests instinctively know that there was a violent death in its past. It appears the unfortunate Mr. Knapp is still looking for his proper bed. However, he doesn’t seem to mind guests of the feminine persuasion, as Hanson’s daughter found out when, while making up the bed one day, she felt a hand pat her butt. She spun to confront whoever would be so bold, only to find the room empty.
The fifth apparition seen is one that Mrs. Hanson refers to as “Mr. Foggybody,” though she believes it may be the ghost of former manager Francis O. Clark. Described as a floating head with shocking white hair, atop a body of smoke, he’s been sighted by employees and guests alike. Though Francis Clark didn’t die in the hotel, he managed it for several years, and his body was laid out in the hotel parlor when he died.
In addition, there are a myriad of phenomena that typify a haunted house, though most don’t have them all in one place. Phantom footsteps, cold spots, opening and closing doors and windows, are all par for the course at Mason House.
The Hanson’s recently (2006) converted an antique railroad caboose into a self-contained cottage on the grounds. The main house features ten rooms, each with private bathrooms, and antique furnishings. They welcome guests of all kinds, and also have special themed weekends such as a “Murder Mystery” party, quilting retreats, and special packages for ghost hunters. And for the latter, parties do not go away disappointed. The inn is very active, as any who have stayed there can attest. And, true to tradition, there is still a cookie jar in every room.
While it’s hard to imagine a bad time to visit the Mason House Inn, there are definitely a few rooms that are more active than others. Of them, room five seems to be the most active, with people reporting being tugged on and strange swirling mists appearing in the middle of the night. It’s also is below the room where Mary Mason Clark is reported to rock in her chair, and it is known that a doctor died of diphtheria in the room in 1940. For those of sterner hearts, room seven the one where Mr. Knapp is most often reported, still trying to sleep off his drunk of years ago.
To contact the Mason House Inn and Caboose Cottage, visit them on their website.
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