South Dakota, Trip 2

June 6, 2010

The Historic Mellette House, Watertown SD

Goss Opera House, Watertown SD

On May 20th, I set off to explore the haunted, and not-so-haunted, spots in eastern South Dakota, accompanied by my sister, who is my driver, my first reader and picky editor (a much-valued skill, believe me, since I seem to see what I meant to type, not necessarily what’s actually there), and the chooser of hotels and restaurants. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good (mall food court food, for example).

We set off on a very breezy day, to put it mildly. We didn’t take any back roads (sigh. but the driver picks the route) so we flew east on I-94, with limited traffic and a speed limit of 75 (and despite that high limit, people were passing us like we were at a dead stop), then turned south on I-29. After stopping for lunch at the Granite City Brewery in Fargo.

South Dakota’s first rest stop, as you’re heading south on I-29, is a wonderful place. Not just restrooms and vending machines, but real people and racks of brochures, maps, booklets, and so on, about pretty much everything in South Dakota. Without the help of the very pleasant man who welcomed us and overwhelmed us with suggestions about where we should go, we would have missed a lot. Like Watertown.

Now Watertown isn’t exactly a booming metropolis. but with a population of just over 20,000, it holds its own against larger cities. The downtown area was alive and blooming. Lots of fun little shops, places to eat, and only a few empty store fronts. But the real prize of Watertown (if you don’t count the enormous art center with it’s incredibly beautiful park, right off the highway) is the Goss Opera House. If I’m remembering correctly, it was built in 1888, and held its first performance in 1889. It’s a 3-story brick and stone building, and after being empty for many years, managed to make it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and with help from the local population, it’s gradually being restored.

The building sits on a corner, and on one street, you can enter via a coffee shop, with wonderful coffee and pastry smells wafting through the air and tempting us to sit down and enjoy a snack. But from the coffee place, you can go into the store that fills the corner. It’s filled with jewelry, knick-knacks, books, humorous items, Native American items, and more. If you turn left after entering from the coffee side, you’ll walk into a room defined more by racks than walls, where clothing and accessories are sold. From there, you can enter a restaurant that is open for dinner, although it appeared that the bar might open a little earlier. I found it interesting that the only way to get into the store was through one of the two eateries. Hmm.

As we wandered through the first area of the store (where Shari found a few things to buy!), I talked to the clerk there and told her the reason for our trip, and asked her first, if they’d be interested in stocking my book when it’s out, and second, if there were any spooky stories about the opera house (the top two floors are still being renovated; at some point, it will, they hope, be an opera house and live theater again). She gave me the card of the woman who does the buying, but said that she really couldn’t talk about whether or not there might be haunted (or haunting?) stories. My sister figured that meant that there probably were, but who really knows?

I do know that in the coffee bar area I felt welcome and comfortable. I was less comfortable in the main room of the store, but I put it down to the sheer volumer of stuff that filled the room. Then I walked into the room where the clothes were hanging. Immediately, the hair on the back of my neck rose. I don’t know, dear readers, if you’re aware of the effects of electro-magnetic fields on humans. EMF can come from any electrical device, from your refrigerator to a computer, or from poorly grounded wires. And the effect can be that rising hair, feelings of paranoia, nausea, and headaches (there’s a copper pipe over my laundry area that has a ridiculously high EMF level, probably it’s a conduit for wiring, but I know that I always feel like I’m being watched when I do laundry. Now I know it’s just the high EMF, so I’m not as nervous about it). I didn’t see anything in that room that could be giving off EMF. Nada. I passed rather rapidly from the first feeling, that feeling of being watched, to a headache and a growing nausea. I walked across the room and stood by the large window in the sunshine, and felt a little better. But I didn’t stay inside to wait while Shari paid for her purchases; I went outside and waited on the sidewalk. Haunting? Natural EMF? I don’t know. I do know that I tend to be overly sensitive to both, but I couldn’t tell you what caused that feeling. Shari and the clerk were both oblivious to it. Hmmm.

Our next destination in Watertown was the Mellette house. It was built in the early 1880s by Arthur Calvin Mellette (up until then, the family had lived in a tent next to a nearby lake, then in the apartment over a store Mellette owned; imagine Mrs. Mellette’s delight in having this huge house for the couple and their four growing boys!). Mellette was the last governor of Dakota Territory, appointed by his old friend, President Benjamin Harrison, then in 1889, was elected the first governor of South Dakota. He served two terms before retiring, in part for health reasons. While he traveled the territory mainly by train, Mrs. Mellette and the boys stayed in the house. It’s a large beautiful brick and wood house, with gorgeous woodwork in the interior. Built on Prospect Hill, Watertown’s highest point, its outstanding feature is a three-story tower, in which a spiral staircase leads you to a platform at the top, where you can see about 3 miles in every direction. I started up the stairs, gripping the beautiful wood railing, but the spiral and the height overcame me, and I let Shari go up to see what she could see, while I stayed at the bottom of the stairs, enjoying the sunlight that came through the round stained glass window in the tower’s front side.

Outside, lilacs were blooming, birds were singing, and it seemed like a wonderful place to be. Honestly, I could have spent the night there (no, you can’t spend a night in the Mellette house; it’s a museum with guided tours, sadly). The house doesn’t seem to be haunted at all, although it had fallen into almost irredeemable ruin over the years since the Mellette’s had left it behind. The County and State Historical Society held many fundraisers and applied for grants left and right, and the house is now restored to its former glory. There is a rumor that frightens the children of Watertown (or at least, used to, according to our tour guide who grew up in Watertown); it’s said that during the unoccupied years, a “bum” (their word; I’d say homeless man) got into the house one night and hanged himself in the tower. There’s no documentation for the story, in newspapers or books, so it’s probably one of those things that children make up about the spooky decrepit house on a corner in any town. The house still seems to belong to Margaret Mellette, and she wants it clean, shiny, and filled with happy visitors. And that’s just what it is.

Stay tuned for part two of Trip 2! And Trip 3 (the final trip, I hope…) will happen in a couple of weeks, as I write along.