A Bit from the Book, Spooky North Dakota

July 8, 2009

As I frantically work towards my end-of-month deadline, I thought I’d give my many readers a few hints at what’s actually going to be in the book!

One of the best-known ghost stories in North Dakota is that of the Gray Lady of Sims. Sims isn’t a town anymore; it’s just the original Lutheran Church and its parsonage. Thanks to the faithful and volunteering congregation, the folks from Preserve North Dakota, and a grant from the government, the parsonage was renovated and restored to its original condition in 2006, and on alternate Sundays, after services, can be toured by visitors. But who is this Gray Lady, you ask?

Most will tell you she’s the shade of the first wife of Rev. L. Dordal, and the mother of his two sons, and no one remembers her name, and after her death sometime between 1916 and 1918, the Reverend married her sister within a month, then moved out of state. But those who say that don’t have the advantage of having talked with Lars Dordal’s great niece, who just happens to be my best friend from college, and lives right here in Bismarck.

Mrs. Dordal was named Bertha (although her tombstone says only “Mrs. L. Dordal, d. May 8, 1917;” to which I say, I’d be haunting the place too, if only to get my NAME on my headstone, along with, perhaps, “Beloved Wife and Mother!”). She died just 11 days before her 27th birthday. Rev. Lars did indeed quickly remarry, but his second wife, Clara, wasn’t Bertha’s sister. That was a story they made up, thinking his quick (as in, a month after the funeral…) second marriage might be easier for the congregation to accept if they thought Clara was his late wife’s sister. In fact, she was the 18-year-old who was caring for his brother Jacob’s sick wife and children (Jacob was also a minister), and in the wake of Bertha’s death, Lars, who had truly loved Bertha, couldn’t preach, and went to visit his brother in Ada, MN.  There he met Clara, and the two fell in love almost immediately. Clara was a sweet and beautiful young woman, and the boys loved her almost as much as Lars did.

But the congregation apparently wasn’t so accepting, although no haunting activity took place while Clara was in the parsonage. Lars accepted a call from a congregation in Rhame, in the SW part of the state, and stayed there until Sims called him back to fill in during the 9 months or so they searched for a new pastor. It seems the last one they had left rather abruptly. After an odd incident.

The minister’s family had a female visitor, and she was sleeping upstairs in what had been used as the church until the church was actually built. She awoke in the night, feeling chilly, and saw a woman in her room. The woman was carrying a blanket, and asked her if she needed it. The woman in the bed said yes, and the other woman draped the blanket over her and left the room. At breakfast the next morning, the young visitor thanked the pastor’s wife for bringing her the blanket. The response wasn’t quite what she’d expected — the pastor’s wife was horrified, and said she hadn’t been out of bed — and besides the guest, she was the only (living) woman in the house! And so began the haunting — and the stories — of the Gray Lady.

Her haunting wasn’t a malicious one; it continued as it had begun, with nurturing acts like the delivery of the blanket. She opens windows when it’s stuffy, and started the pump handle before the person with the bucket went outside. She opened and closed cupboard doors, but generally to point out where things were needed, or where they should be put away.

The last pastor and his family left the parsonage in 1940, and it stood empty, slowly falling to pieces, until the renovation and restoration. Is Bertha back, sleeping in her first floor bedroom?

Well, when I went to take photos of the church and the parsonage (and Bertha’s grave), I went intp the backyard, and stood, listening to the whispers of the cottonwood leaves and the songs of the meadowlark. I suddenly felt as though I were being watched. I turned around and looked at the wood-framed lean-to at the back of the stucco home. It has a large square window, and the shade was pulled all the way down. Of course, I thought, I know the story so I expect something to be there, and I took a photo of the back of the house. I wandered around the back yard a little more, enjoying the peace and quiet, so far from city traffic and sounds of people. As I reluctantly walked back to my car, my gaze was drawn again to that back window. And I realized that the shade that had been down was now halfway up. No one else was there; there were no cars but mine, and all the doors were locked. The door to the back lean-to was even padlocked. I took another photo, just so I could compare them when I downloaded them. And sure enough, they show a closed shade, and a half-open shade. Was Bertha saying hello? I’d like to think so.

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One Response to “A Bit from the Book, Spooky North Dakota”

  1. Very interesting ghost story. I’ll copy and send to my daughter who once lived in a house with a ghost. She’ll love it. I’ll also send her the link to more of your stories and keep checking back myself. Eunice “Eunie” Boeve

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