Ghosts of Paoli Mill Park Gallery
By Tobias Wayland; images by Emily Wayland
It’s an eerily unseasonable day in February when we pull up to the Paoli Mill Park Gallery in Paoli, Wisconsin. The sun is shining with spring-like warmth on the neighboring bars and taprooms of the small, artsy community. Emily and I are here with our host Theresa, a pleasant young twentysomething and the Paoli Mill Park Gallery’s only employee outside of its operators. We’ve come at Theresa’s behest, and with the permission of the couple who run the gallery, because like so many old, historic buildings in Wisconsin, this place is rumored to be haunted.
The building itself is full of rustic charm. Its peeling paint seems appropriate to the age of the building and its rural environment, and although it’s been renovated and added onto over the years, there's still a lot of saloon in its design. The front appears practically unchanged from when this place used to entertain the working class men of Wisconsin over a century ago.
The saloon-turned-gallery was originally built sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s as a watering hole for the hardworking men of the local mill. The mill and a handful of other buildings dating back to the Civil War era still perch along the banks of the Sugar River, and they've carried their history with them. Visiting Paoli is like stepping into the past, if the past were inhabited by middle-aged people drinking beer in the warm Wisconsin sun.
When we enter the gallery we are struck by the eclectic beauty of the art covering every wall from floor to ceiling. Paoli Mill Park Gallery features dozens of local folk artists, and covers every artistic medium from paintings to stained glass. Theresa graciously gives us a tour of the ground floor, and we wander behind her, stopping here-and-there to appreciate any art that catches our eye.
She eventually leads us to a small door above steep, wooden stairs that lead into the gallery's basement. The claustrophobic space is filled with boxes of what I assume is art and art accoutrement. Its stone walls and ancient crawl spaces are indicative of the building's age, and I can't help but feel a bit unsettled. Theresa remarks about how disturbing she finds the basement, and although she says it with a smile on her face, I don't think she's kidding.
"I never come down here alone," she says before leading us back upstairs.
Upstairs we meet Mark, one of the gallery's owners, who corroborates Theresa's eerie feelings on the basement.
"I just get down there and take care of business," he says. "It is what it is."
Mark is kind enough to give us some history on the building itself during a brief lull in his day. He tells us about how the downstairs was a saloon—even pointing out a spot on the floor where the shadow of its bar remains—and mentions that the upstairs was once used as a hotel. Sticking to tradition, the upper level of the building is now rented out as an Airbnb.
Theresa mentions to us that she sometimes hears footsteps upstairs—an event that on the surface seems innocuous, until you realize that she often hears them when the rooms are vacant.
"I don't believe in ghosts and stuff," she laughs nervously. "But I heard people walking around upstairs, and I don't like that."
Mark also admits to hearing the sounds of people moving around up there when no-one should be present, and adds that the noises stopped briefly when he hung an angel iconograph (a picture formed by a word or words) in an upstairs room—only to have them return when the image was removed.
We make small talk for a while after that, and enjoy the sunlight streaming into the gallery that seems to wash away the chill of our ghostly conversation. Soon, though, actual customers enter, and we politely excuse ourselves to find somewhere we can relax with a pint and ruminate on the stories we just heard.
I see in Mark and Theresa the same timidity that is witnessed among so many otherwise normal people who experience the unknown. There is still a stigma in our society surrounding any admonition of belief in the otherworldy, and I can't blame them for not wanting to buy into it completely and publicly. But the fact remains they felt what they felt, and they heard what they heard. And if you ever get a chance to visit the Paoli Mill Park Gallery, perhaps you'll feel it, too.