By Joe Bachman
Personally, I’m not that good with children — so how would I possibly fare with children not amongst the realm of the living?
Over the weekend I was invited to join an investigation into the First Ward School — a building that has a reputation for harnessing the unknown. Reports of shadow people, a ghostly elderly gentleman, mysterious lights, and two children named “Betty” and “Oscar” have brought this once abandoned school to life.
The school was built in 1896 and taught kindergarten through sixth grade. While hundreds and thousands of children passed through the school doors over the years, it wasn’t without incident. In 1910, the bell tower was struck by lightning and burned off the building, never to be replaced.
After shutting down a few years later the school reopened in 1921, and shortly after, the roof caught on fire, though luckily, the fire was put in time and nobody was hurt. After a remodel in 1954, the school would run until 1977 and shut down entirely in 1979.
However, that only set the stage for paranormal investigator Justin Libigs to purchase the home in 2010.
Libigs has appeared on multiple paranormal television shows, including “My Ghost Story”, as well as the web series “Relatively Haunted”. He has even worked with famous investigation team “TAPS” from the well known paranormal-reality show “Ghost Hunters.”
“I don’t call it ghost hunting,” said Libigs. “I call it soul searching.”
Libigs gave me the initial tour of the school as I stepped into a piece of Wisconsin Rapids history. According to Libigs, he doesn’t see ghosts as ghosts — he sees them as people. I was asked to speak to them as I would anyone else.
Soon I would put to test my long awaited, but skeptical itch for paranormal investigation, becoming the Scully to my Mulder, as the night began.
With a team of five, including myself, our first stop was one of the main classrooms in the school, as this is where our first activity came from. A device called the “Ovilus” utilizes frequencies which potentially translates the notions of nearby spirits into words. One of the first words of the night on this device was “Holiday”.
Muriel Holiday was one of the principals in First Ward School. Coincidence? I’ll let the readers be the judge of that one. The investigation would lead downstairs to the storage room, and the area of the old caretaker everyone knows as “Mike”. While no ghostly activity arose from this, the team was not deterred, though the reality of ghost hunting became apparent —
“Throw Hollywood out the window.” said Libigs — words of advice given to me shortly before the investigation. In fact, the “reality” of many ghost hunting shows are that filming almost never takes place in one night, and the haunts come few and far between. However, this doesn’t discourage most soul searchers.
By midnight, the team was still high in spirit, and even though we had very little, our next stop was the attic, allegedly haunted by “Oscar” — a little boy who hung himself in the area, though no confirmation of this has ever been found.
Minutes would go by until we heard our first evidence that we might not be alone. After asking “Oscar” or anyone to make themselves known, a very distinct knock was heard from the other side of the attic. This was admittedly not the sound of an old house settling, or something randomly dropping to the floor — something, or someone had caused it. Again, the nature of this incident is up to the believer, or non-believer.
Minutes later more activity, and this time it was right behind me. It wasn’t a knock, but this time, a shuffle — as if a person shuffled their feet quickly to scurry along the attic. I remembered what Justin had previously told me before about prior experienced with notable sounds of shuffled feet in the attic, and while I did not catch this on video or audio, I cannot confirm nor deny what it was and what it wasn’t.
Now 1:30 in the morning, cold and tired, I decided to head out of the historic school, though the one experience that I didn’t share with the team was an experience I decided to keep to myself until I could process it.
When the team went on breaks, they would do so outside — leaving me free reign of the house. I decided a few times to take my own stroll through the building.
On one occasion, as I was downstairs exploring the caretaker’s old quarters I was by the poker table in the room when I heard two distinct and loud bangs or footsteps above me. Now while I am quite sure the team was outside, I cannot fully corroborate this. However, what I can say, is that it wasn’t a furnace kicking in, and it was very close to me.
However, at the end of the night, I don’t believe it truly matters. While I captured no evidence of paranormal activity, the feeling that followed me throughout the night in my time alone was that of being watched. Some psychologists call it the psychic staring effect, or scopaesthesia. This was heightened in the room where young Betty Vanderbilt is said to appear — a child who tragically died right outside of First Ward School.
It was the feeling that someone, or something, was with me — and I have no explanation for it. This incident indirectly assists an experience I had over 10 years ago when I looked into the windows of the school one night, and through the moonlight only saw a blue orb that circled towards me before something tapped on the window, startling me away from view.
Sans a direct and emotional experience, the hype around ghost hunting will always divide many — believers, non-believers, or those who just aren’t sure, like myself. My science tells me that anything that happens inside of the school can be explained, though I cannot account for the incidents that it has not explained, or perhaps has yet to explain.
So is this school haunted? Am I thoroughly a believer? I still can’t say for certain, but what I can say is that something is here — something worth appreciating. Until then, I plan to go back as soon as I can, and say hi to my new “friends”, Betty and Oscar.
Early this month, the city shut down the school from hosting public events and tours due to building and fire safety code violations. There is a GoFundMe account setup for anyone interested in donating towards repairing the historic building that you can access by clicking here.