By Sylvia Shults.
My husband Rob has long had the dream of being his own boss, of running his own business. In August 2011, he got his wish when he purchased the bar at 431 ½ Court Street in Pekin. He started in on renovations immediately, spending many late nights in the building, doing painting and repairs so that The Cantina would be perfect on opening day. It was at the end of one of these long nights, when he came home and fell into bed, that he told me an interesting bit of news.
“Oh, by the way? Our new bar is haunted.”
Two of the former owners of the bar had tales to tell, of strange noises and even stranger sights. One of the owners spoke of barstools that would swivel on their own, and a jukebox that would play music at odd times, even when no one had fed it money.
Another owner started his story with the flat declaration, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” But one night after closing, he was standing at the end of the bar, counting the day’s take from the cash register drawer, and he heard footsteps behind him.
“You know how in an old building like this, you can feel the floorboards flex as somebody walks across ‘em? I felt that. Boom, boom, boom. I thought maybe I’d left the door unlocked, and someone had gotten in after closing. I swung around and came up with my fist cocked, ready to clock somebody – but there was nobody there.”
One of the former bartenders shared an even stranger story with us. He was behind the bar working one evening, when a sharply-dressed gentleman came up the stairs and went directly into the men’s room. The bartender noted the man’s tuxedo suit and top hat, but didn’t find it odd, as it was New Year’s Eve. The bartender did get concerned when half an hour or so passed and the gentleman still hadn’t come out of the men’s room. The bartender went into the restroom to check on his customer – and found the tiny room empty.
It came as no surprise to us that our ghost might be a nattily dressed man in a top hat and tails. The building, of which The Cantina occupies the second floor, has been through several incarnations, including a post office, a cigar lounge, a gentleman’s club, and a meeting hall for both the Knights of Pythias and their ladies’ auxiliary, the Pythian Sisters. In the center of the pressed tin ceiling at The Cantina is a strange triangular pattern, some sort of sigil worked into the ceiling, the symbol of the Knights of Pythias. And when the fraternity left the building, and the next owners started to clean it out, they found a gruesome souvenir: a small casket containing the bones of one of the founders of the Knights. Even though the brotherhood no longer uses the building for their gatherings, traces of the fraternity still remain. Perhaps some of the members themselves still meet there too.
One evening, a friend of mine stopped by The Cantina for a drink. I knew she was a gifted medium, and I noticed that her gaze kept drifting toward the front room. I found this interesting, since other members of Research In Paranormal (my ghost investigation group) had said that they’d gotten weird feelings about the front room, and about the hallway connecting the front room to the office in particular. I make no claim to sensitivity myself, but even I got a peculiar feeling in that hallway.
I walked with my medium friend to the front room. “Okay, I can tell you’re getting something. What can you tell me about this place?”
She spoke slowly. A sense of peace suffused her words. “The men liked to gather here. They really enjoyed spending time in this front room. This was a meeting place for … not the Masons, or Elks … it’s the Knights of – oh, not the Knights of Columbus, it’s an unfamiliar name …” She moved to the big bay windows at the front of the building. A delighted grin lit her face, and she chuckled. “I’m seeing horses and carriages on Court Street!”
After she had finished. I told her what I knew about the place. She nodded. “Knights of Pythias – that was it. You’ve definitely got at least one of those guys still enjoying this place.”
Our door guy, Doug, has had his own encounters with whatever entity haunts the bar. He told me that several times, as he has sat at the bar nursing a drink, he has seen some sort of shadow in the mirror behind the back bar, a shadow that appears, in the mirror, to be several feet behind him.
I told Krystal Depew, of the Illinois Ghost Seekers Society, about the activity at The Cantina. So one Sunday when the bar was closed, she and her team came up to do an investigation.
One of the neatest things about working with other paranormal investigation groups is seeing what kind of toys each group brings. In addition to the full-spectrum cameras and digital voice recorders, I was introduced to a gadget called a MEL meter. This device gives two simultaneous readings, temperature and EMF (electromagnetic frequency) measurements. Having this dual readout is very useful in paranormal investigation.
Cold spots are a good indicator of a spirit presence. In order to manifest, ghosts need to draw energy from their surroundings. Often, this leads to a drop in temperature – the classic “cold spot”. There’s a theory, too, that the presence of a spirit can affect electromagnetic fields in an area. One of the first orders of business in an investigation is to do a walkthrough of the building to note any machines that are giving off electromagnetic energy, or the presence of wiring in the walls that may affect the readings gathered with the EMF meters.
I met with Krystal and Rob outside the back door, and let them into the building. Doug was there too – given his experiences in the bar, he was eager to join us. Other researchers from IGSS joined us a bit later in the evening.
After the team had done the initial walk-through, they set up a few cameras and voice recorders, and I turned out most of the lights. The Cantina is a very peaceful place in the dark. With the only light coming from the old-fashioned sconces on one wall, the rich red of the walls just seems to glow. The investigators and I decided to start the first EVP session in the men’s room. Don’t laugh, now – that’s where a full-bodied apparition has been seen. It was a logical place to start.
Jim, Rob Depew, Danielle and I stood in the tiny men’s room. Jim held a DVR (digital voice recorder) in his hand, and Danielle held an EMF meter. We asked the standard questions – can you tell us your name? Do you know what year it is? Why are you still here? – hoping to get some sort of answer. Usually, doing an EVP session is like a game of Twenty Questions, except that it’s completely one-sided, and actually kind of boring. But every once in a while, something happens during the session that chases the boredom away in a snap.
The men’s room at The Cantina is a tiny room, with dark gray walls and an impossibly tall ceiling. It’s at the end of a hallway, and the hallway bends to form the door – not an easy place for sound to travel much. The four of us, two men and two women, stood in the men’s room asking questions. After we asked “Can you tell us your name?”, we all heard an improbable sound – a woman’s indistinct moan.
It was just a snippet of sound, not a drawn-out cry. But we all heard it. [For a similar sound, and the story behind it, I invite you to visit the Ghosts of the Illinois River fan page on Facebook, or www.ripillinois.org, and read the story of “The Ghost Fart”.]
We did several more investigative sessions, mostly working with the voice recorders. Doug had the most delightful experience – one of the entities we encountered seemed to like him. He was holding one of the MEL meters, and getting readings of unnatural cold along with high EMF. The readings changed when he moved the meter, and he finally narrowed his field down to a spot, about three feet high, just in front of the stage. I held my hand out over the spot Doug had pinpointed. My palm seemed to tingle with a low-grade electric awareness, a tingle that faded when I moved my hand away from that spot.
Jim and I sat for a while, along with London Depew, in the office of The Cantina, still asking questions, still hoping that some spirit would oblige us and answer. We didn’t get any responses, although something strange happened at that point too.
The office area leads into the back hallway (the hallway connects the office area and the front room, where my medium friend spoke of the men of the club that still met in the bar). I’m not the only person who has gotten weird vibes from the back hallway.
Doug was still wandering around the main room of the bar, charmed that the entity (according to the MEL meter readings) seemed to be following him. He got as far as the door to the office – then the meter’s EMF readings dropped to zero, and the temperature went back up to normal room temperature. Doug stepped back out, and the entity came back to hover around him. But no matter how Doug encouraged and cajoled, the entity refused to follow him into the office. The meter picked up a presence wherever Doug went in the building – a presence that stopped resolutely at the threshold of the office door.
It was getting late, so we wrapped up the investigation. I turned the lights on, the IGSS team collected all their equipment, and they left, thanking us for the opportunity to investigate such an active site. Later, Krystal and Rob shared the results of the investigation with us, including several EVPs. The team decided that The Cantina is haunted by an intelligent entity. They think it’s a female – they didn’t find any evidence of our top-hatted gentleman, but perhaps he was just keeping quiet that evening. Doug swears “Top Hat Guy” is still there, as he saw the shadow the evening of April 7th, during the Whistle Pigs concert. Also, several weeks after the investigation, there was another curious incident at the bar that seems to support the theory that it’s a woman who haunts the place …
Rob and our bartender, Colby, had locked the doors at one in the morning. They were sitting in the front room on the couch closest to the bar, talking and winding down from the evening. Colby is a tiny Italian girl in her twenties, cute as a bug, with large, dark, trusting eyes – and unfortunately, she was having guy trouble. She poured her heart out to Rob, who listened patiently. Colby did a bit of quiet sobbing, because (it’s true) guys can be jerks at times. Rob pulled her in for a hug, and she leaned in gratefully.
Then she stiffened in Rob’s arms. “I can see a shadow on the pool table!” she said in a fierce whisper.
She sat up, shuddering. “And why is it so cold all of a sudden?” She rubbed her arms as she shivered.
Both Rob and Colby are unyielding skeptics, but after Colby saw the shadow standing by the pool table, they were both left wondering if maybe her sobs had upset one of our resident spirits. They spent some time, these nonbelievers, trying to communicate with our ghost. Rob stood at the end of the bar, snapping pictures with Colby’s cell phone, while Colby stood next to the pool table, encouraging the spirit to stand next to her. Nothing anomalous showed up in the pictures, although Colby says she saw the shadow again, this time hovering against the wall that forms the hallway that leads to the men’s room. Eventually, Rob and Colby left for the evening – but they poured a shot glass full of whiskey and left it at the end of the bar as a friendly gesture for whoever it was Colby saw.
People continue to have personal experiences with our spirits, even people who swear they don’t believe in ghosts. As I was typing up this post, I was sitting alone in the bar, watching the place while Rob ran an errand. The afternoon was warm, and I was wearing shorts. I was sitting at the bar, with my bare knees touching the rough carpet that’s tacked up to the bar. As I typed, the floor flexed behind me as if someone was walking across it, enough to bring my knees away from their contact with the rough surface. I whipped around – but of course there was no one there. I had announced to the ghosts after Rob had left that I was writing about them. Maybe someone wanted to read over my shoulder as I worked. The Cantina is our bar, but I don’t mind sharing it with a couple of friendly ghosts.
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