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  • Cathy Tonkin

A Haunting of Oakwood Manor, Part 1

Part 1

We bought Oakwood Manor in September of 1997 from Pearl Cornwall, and we moved in on Thanksgiving weekend. Our 12-year-old son, Derek, was excited about his new big bedroom and Griffin and I were thrilled to own this historic house. We Thompsons had a new home. 

Pearl’s father had built the manor in 1914 and she had lived there most of her life and was very sad that no one in her family wanted to keep the house. 

She was at the closing when the house was signed over to us. Pearl was in her 80s but looked even older. She was obviously upset about having to move out of her home. 

We first saw the manor when a friend in real estate called saying, “Colette, I’m standing in your dream house!” I said, “I already have a great house.” Carolyn said, “Not like this one. Come here right now!” I was surprised because Carolyn had been to our house, so she knew we had a great old home.

Curious to see this place, I left work and went up the hill to a large house on a dead-end street in a nice neighborhood. 

Carolyn met me on the front porch. She said while she was waiting in the foyer, she heard noises upstairs. We went in and listened but didn’t hear anything. It was spring so we couldn’t blame the radiators for the noise. I was so excited to tour this house I quickly forgot that incident. 

We walked through the manor and when I saw the beautiful woodwork, I called my husband Griffin and said, “I think I’m standing in our future dream house. Come up here right now!” 

After he arrived Carolyn took us on a tour, and we thought that this place had great potential and the price was good because it was in pretty bad shape. 

We talked it over thinking that after a renovation this home would be amazing and told Carolyn we would buy the manor and then we wrote out a check for the down payment. 

We had lived in the Newsom Park area of Duluth since we married in 1984. We love vintage houses and had bought our 1920 house after seeing it on a drive through town. We both grew up in Duluth and live not far from our parents. We enjoyed family get-togethers except for the occasional sibling rivalry issues. 

We put our house up for sale and started working on the Manor. We were able to have work done on the manor while we still lived at the 1920s home. 


Part 2

We learned from the realtor that Pearl tried to get in touch with her brother, James, but they hadn’t stayed in contact after he left town so she couldn’t find him. She had hoped that, perhaps, someone in his family would want to have the manor. She pleaded with her daughter to take over the house, but Grace said, “I am single and don’t want to live in that big house alone. It would be different if I was married with a family.”

She signed the purchase agreement with a shaky hand and a tear in her eye. Pearl never saw Oakwood Manor again. The home was now ours. Little did we know what we were in for. 

After owning the manor for a couple of months we learned some history of the place from a neighbor. We were glad that Lea was a nosey neighbor, or we wouldn’t have learned that two deaths took place in the home. The wife of the owner, Tessa, died in the big bedroom and her daughter, Franny, died in the kitchen. 

The first few months in our new house we had problems with the phones. They would stop working on and off for a couple weeks. Finally, we had the phone company out to check them, but they found nothing wrong inside the house and out. All the extensions were working well while he was here. After he left the phones quit working consistently. It seemed very strange to us but we were busy and carried on with work and home life.

The whole house needed paint and the kitchen and bathroom needed a total refurbishing.


Part 3

I heard from Lea that Oliver Cornwall had built the manor, had it furnished and then surprised his wife, Tessa, with her new home. Oliver was a wealthy landowner who had made his millions in the oil industry so could well afford to live in a mansion. 

Oliver could be described as portly having somewhat of a pot belly and a bald pate. He was known to be a good neighbor and a kind friend. He often said he was proud to be wed to Tessa Chamberlin whose family was well known in the state and quite wealthy. He was also

 extremely proud of his children, James, Pearl and Francis and happy to show them their new home.

The manor was built in the ‘Arts & Crafts’ style that was popular in the beginning of the 1900s and sometimes called Mission Style. It is a stucco structure that was painted a rust color with warm brown trim. It had a good size front porch, a large foyer with an oak stairway straight ahead and oak French doors going into the living room on the left and another set of French doors on the right leading into the sunroom. The sunroom had large windows on 3 sides of its 12’ X 12’ room. The living room, foyer and dining room had oak hardwood floors that Oliver had finished in a light oak stain. He said, “The floors creak like my knees do when it rains.”

The beamed ceilings and woodwork were quarter sawn white oak in a dark stain as were the built in bookcases on either side of the brick fireplace. 

Lea said that the dining room had a big oak table and chairs to seat ten guests. A swinging door lead into the kitchen. Oliver had the living and dining rooms furnished with the popular furniture of the day made by the Stickley company of Upstate New York.

There was a piano in one corner of the dining room that all three of the women in the family could play and where their daughter, Franny, gave piano lessons to the neighborhood children. (Lea took lessons from Franny and told us of a horrible ordeal that Tessa suffered through.)

The upstairs had four bedrooms and a bathroom with another set of stairs leading up to the very large attic.

Lea said, “The largest bedroom had a huge oak bedstead with matching dresser and chest of drawers. It was a corner room, so it had three large windows that let in the cheerful sunshine and two good size closets. 

Oliver’s three children were each thrilled to have their own good size bedroom. Their son, James, had the green room, Pearl had the bright yellow room and Franny’s room was light blue. The bathroom had also been painted baby blue and had a blue sink, toilet and tub. 

Tessa’s nearest neighbor, Gladys Kent, was a good friend and someone she could go to for help with childrearing questions and helpful household hints.

Tessa loved her new home and thrived there. She wanted to get to know some of her neighbor ladies, so she asked Gladys to help her have a tea party for these women. During these get togethers Tessa would rave about her children and especially her son. She would tell them of his latest accomplishment in school or sports. Her pride in him was never ending. 



Part 4

Lea said she heard from her mom that Mr. Cornwall would host dinner parties for work associates. Tessa would plan the menu and have their maid, Alice, help with the cooking and serving of the meal. I think Oliver liked to serve fish to his guests saying, “This fish is so fresh it was swimming in Lake Superior just this morning.”

I know that there was a button in the floor under Tessa’s left foot that she would press to call the maid in to bring in the next course, clear plates or to pour wine. 

She said that after the meal the gentlemen would adjourn to the sunroom for a smoke, a pipe or a bit of snuff.  Tessa and the wives stayed in the dining room enjoying their dessert and coffee.

Their children, James, Pearl and Franny spent these evenings in Pearl’s room listening to her radio. They loved the radio shows of the day, especially “Amos ‘n Andy.” 

Tessa had their maid, Alice, help with the children. She would always be there when their parents were out and made sure they had their three-square meals a day. Besides cooking and cleaning, Alice was a tutor so would help the kids with their schoolwork. Alice was invaluable to Tessa because she had many community events and meetings to attend each week and so she had Alice watch the children. 

Lea’s mother Gladys was a good friend of Tessa’s and so she heard all the stories of the Cornwall’s. She learned that Pearl was Oliver’s favorite child. At one time when she asked for a radio, he came home the next day with one for her that she put in her room. Franny and James were livid. James said, “I don’t understand why dad didn’t put the radio in the parlor for the whole family to enjoy.” There was no end to the sibling rivalry in this family.


Part 5

The next week, when I had Lea over for coffee, I asked her to tell me more about the Cornwall’s. She said, “Franny gave piano lessons and some of the neighbors sent their children to the manor for these sessions and Franny also taught painting at a nearby grade school.”

Lea told me that Pearl was jealous that Franny was making her own money with these lessons. She had no way to make extra cash and just received the weekly allowance from her father. It was generous but not as much as her sister was making so at times Pearl would sneak into Franny’s closet where she kept her money and she’d take a few of her sister’s dollars.

“The following year Pearl tried to earn money by selling candy and greeting cards door to door. This didn’t go well because most of her neighbors knew who she was and knew her father was wealthy so they didn’t think she should have any of their hard-earned wages,” said Lea.


Part 6

There had been many strange things that happened around the Manor. Our piano had a small lamp on it that sometimes went on by itself. We would go to work in the morning, having turned off all the lights in the house, but when we’d get home the lamp on the piano would be on. This happened most days for a couple of weeks. We were surprised by this happening but just thought that there was something wrong with the lamp.

We furnished the home with many Stickley pieces. The living, dining and master bedroom all had Arts and Crafts Style furniture. We wanted to keep the home in the mission style.


Part 7

Lea told me that, “Pearl was also jealous of her brother James. He was their mother’s favorite and Pearl felt this slight on many occasions. She tried to get her mom’s attention with pictures she’d drawn at school or new dance steps she’d learned. Her mom would smile and nod but never compliment her on these achievements. Pearl never stopped trying to impress her mom but rarely felt much love from her. She said to herself, ‘I know Pa loves me best so I’ll just spend more time with him.’ Her resentment of her mother never went away.”

Lea told me of the death of Mr. Cornwall. “Life for Pearl went well until she was 17 years old. Her father had a spell one evening where he had pain in his neck and shoulders. Pearl got the heating pad for him, but it didn’t seem to help much.”

“The next day when the family was waking up Pearl heard her mother scream, ‘No, No, oh no!’ Pearl ran into her parent’s room to find her father cold in death. She slumped to the floor and sobbed for what seemed like hours. Her mother tried to shush her and get her out of the room but there was no moving Pearl. She stayed in that room until the undertaker came and took her dear father away.”

Lea said she was inconsolable. Her sister tried to calm her but that didn’t work either. She slept in the bed her dad had died in for many nights. Her mother never slept in that room again; instead sleeping in Pearl’s unused room, alone. 


Part 8

I told Lea of a scary incident that happened one night. “I read before I go to sleep and one night, while doing so, the bed spread started to move towards the foot of the bed.  I looked to see if Griffin had moved it or rolled over but no, he hadn’t. I saw that the spread was still moving so I grabbed it and pulled it back up. I looked and listened around the room but there was nothing that could explain this very strange episode.” Lea said, “Well Tessa died in that room so it makes sense that her spirit may still be there.”

I told Griff about it in the morning but of course he just explained it away saying, “One of us rolled over and the quilt moved.”  I just didn’t believe that. 

I told Lea of another strange incidence. “We have a blood pressure cuff on a side table in the living room. Griffin’s doctor had him get one after a few bad readings. At a time when I was sitting in the living room that cuff started to blow up on it’s own. It was shocking but also a bit funny. These hauntings were getting ridiculous.”

With no explanation for these problems I wondered if perhaps the Olivers’ spirits were stopping by to check on us and how we were taking care of the Manor.

Griffin never really believed we had ghosts until one day he saw something that he couldn’t explain. He was sitting in the living room, and he looked out the French doors and thought he saw someone walk up the stairs. Then he heard me in the kitchen. “Collette, did you just go upstairs?” I said no, and he said, “Oh my God.” I came into the living room and saw the shocked look on his face. I was thrilled. Finally, he saw something he couldn’t explain away. At last he considered that the house could be haunted. To me it was about time.

I was out to lunch with my close friends Mary Ann and Katie and was telling them about our new house. “Our home is referred to as a “stigmatized property.” This is real estate speak for a haunted house. That’s a home that may be displeasing to buyers for other reasons besides its physical condition.” I had researched hauntings and read about stigmatized buildings. They weren’t sure if they believed in ghosts but had heard stories from other folks about hauntings. I said, “The sellers didn’t tell us of this at the closing.”

I said, “Common occurrences of hauntings are cold spots, creaking or knocking sounds, items being moved out of place and seeing apparitions. Historically, since most people died in their homes, these places became natural spots for ghosts to haunt, with bedrooms being the most common rooms to be haunted.” 

I told them that I’d read of hauntings being one of the most common paranormal beliefs around the world. “Almost every town and city has at least one ‘haunted’ place. A gallop poll stated 37% of Americans believed that houses could be haunted.”

Katie said she read that “The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is considered one of the most haunted houses in America, although there are no primary sources for the many ghost stories about it. They were most likely inspired by Sarah Winchester, who had her strange, complex, often illogical designs incorporated into the house for almost four decades. They believe that after she died, she returned to the house and is still there.”

Casa Loma in Toronto, Canada was completed in 1914 and there have been rumors of ghosts there for many years. 

Mary Ann said she had heard that one of the most prominent books about a haunted house is “The Haunting of Hill House.” Other books on hauntings include Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Stephen King’s “The Shining”, and Anne Rivers Siddons’ “The House Next Door”. 

I had read that some of the haunted places in Minnesota are First Avenue, a club in Downtown Minneapolis which used to be a bus depot which is said to be haunted by a woman who hung herself there during World War II. The Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Centre was featured on an episode of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and is said to be haunted.

I heard of a building in Mantorville, Minnesota, the Opera House, has hosted a variety of ventures throughout its history.

From being rumored to have an illegal speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition, to being a silent movie theater, roller rink and city hall and to finally reclaiming its status as playhouse by the 1970s, the building has most certainly had its cast of characters throughout the years. And some of those characters never left.

About Cathy Tonkin:

Cathy LaForge Tonkin is an award-winning graphic designer and artist, who worked in that field for thirty years. She enjoys watercolor painting, pottery and writing. She has written 3 previous books, ‘Leave ‘er Lay,’ ‘Kids on the Porch,’ and ‘Upside Down and Backwards’ and many short stories. Cathy lives in beautiful Minnesota with her husband Gary.

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