116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
BENTONSPORT — Abraham Lincoln stops by to chat. Mary Todd Lincoln wants to redecorate. Civil War soldier Harold is the gatekeeper and Mary Mason Clark rules the roost.
Welcome to the Mason House Inn.
In 2006, 'The Today Show' dubbed the bed-and-breakfast one of the most haunted lodgings in America. Inhabited by 20 spirits who had revealed their names to owners Joy and Chuck Hanson back then, the couple now know the names of 50 spirits among the more than 300 who zoom in, stay a while or take up residence in the quaint inn on the shores of the Des Moines River near the Iowa-Missouri border.
Of course, if you just want to spend a night or two in a lovely bed-and-breakfast full of antique furniture and quilts, situated amid scenic splendor in any season, you can do so, without the ghosts. But what's the fun in that?
Even if you don't believe in ethereal beings darting about the rooms, you might still hear things going bump in the night, or see a white Victorian dress float down the staircase, with no body inside it.
Guests have reported hearing footsteps on the third floor, where Mary Mason Clark had her sewing room. She only tolerates having fellow seamstress Joy Hanson go into that room, so it is kept locked.
Other guests have complained about children playing in the hallways at night, when no living children were there. 'Our daughters were getting their fannies slapped and hair pulled,' Joy Hanson said. But no one visible was to blame.
Alarm clocks and fire alarms went off at odd hours until the Hansons asked the spirits to stop. They complied, but batteries on everything from television cameras to smartphones still drain in a flash.
Close encounters are not guaranteed. They're not ruled out, either. I was hoping to meet at least one ghost — and I did.
Jan Herrington of Cedar Rapids, a longtime friend who has made multiple ghost-hunting trips to the Mason House Inn, served as our guide when Gazette photojournalist Adam Wesley and I made an overnight visit Oct. 7. Herrington and I stayed in the Wild Rose Room, decorated with Lincoln memorabilia. The centerpiece is an 1870 replica of a bed from the Lincoln White House — a queen-sized structure hand-carved from dark walnut, crowned by a nine-foot headboard of presidential proportions.
After an evening of ghost hunting on the premises and the nearby 1882 river bridge, I climbed into bed and laid down on my back. Herrington was sitting on the other side, and I said, 'Anyone else want to hop in?' Thud. I felt something plop down heavily by my right knee, then skitter across my right leg. Just like my cats do at home.
Herrington laughed and said that was Josephine, the ghost cat that has shown up in guests' photographs.
The spirits were very active in Wesley's room shortly before that, making three small flashlights flicker on and off in answer to Herrington's questions. Chuck Hanson had invited them to gather there, exclaiming during our interview, 'Party in Adam's room.'
Rest assured, if you aren't open to a spirited experience, all you have to do is tell them to stay out of your room, and they will comply, Hanson said. They're all friendly and very respectful of guests' wishes.
Why the Mason House in tiny Bentonsport?
'It's a living ghost town,' Chuck Hanson said with a sparkle in his voice.
The village, laid out in 1839, was an important river and railroad commerce stop, swelling to a high of 1,000 residents. The town boasted Iowa's first paper mill, along with grist, saw, linseed oil and woolen mills, and was the terminus for the Des Moines Valley Railroad. Between the river and the rail, Bentonsport played a major role in the westward expansion of the United States. (Bentonsport.com/history.html)
Floods, fires and economic turns led to the town's decline by the end of the 19th century. Today, with about 40 residents, it is a lovely reminder of times gone by, part of a scenic drive, a living history mecca for folk art instruction and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
The Mason House itself, built by Mormon craftsmen in 1846, began its life as a hotel for steamboat travelers. Its other lives include an Underground Railroad stop, a holding hospital for Civil War soldiers awaiting transport and in 1913, a tuberculosis sanitarium. The three-story brick structure has been the final stop for many of the sick and wounded, as well as various owners and residents.
Lewis Mason died of diphtheria in 1868 there, daughter Mary Mason Clark died of a heart attack on the third floor in 1911, resident Dr. Gray died there during its boardinghouse years in the first half of the 20th century and proprietor Fannie Mason Kurtz died in the dining room, in front of the fireplace, in 1951.
Some have stayed; others drop by for visits, bringing along friends who swish on through. The population is 'continually growing,' Chuck Hanson said.
'It's becoming a resort for the spirit world,' he said.
Chris Moon, an internationally known psychic medium and paranormal researcher, based in Colorado, has made more than 40 trips to the Mason House in the past decade. He leads ghost explorations and brings his 'Edison's Telephone to the Dead,' developed by Thomas Edison, to communicate with the spirits in the house. Edison's voice also comes through with advice when the unit needs tweaking, Chuck Hanson said. 'He's a very wonderful man to talk to.'
Moon's Nov. 8 session is sold out and the next day is nearly sold out, but other sessions will be held Feb. 7 and 8, Aug. 1 and 2 and Nov. 7 and 8, 2015.
'This is just a fascinating place to be,' Chuck Hanson said. 'Everybody treats each side like family. It's just a wonderful relationship we have here. It makes it feel comfortable here.'
'There's nothing scary here,' Joy Hanson added.
MASON HOUSE MIRACLE
Chuck Hanson, 60, and Joy, 55, married for 37 years and parents of four grown children, have lived in the Mason House since June 2001. Their youngest daughter lives at the back of the third floor, away from Mary's room.
'We came out here to buy a farm, and ended up with a bed-and-breakfast,' said Joy Hanson, an empath who remembers seeing ghosts as far back as age 5, when she got lost and 'an old man' helped her find her way home.
With military backgrounds, the Hansons were pretty rootless before moving to Bentonsport. Joy's father was in the Air Force, so she considers herself from 'everywhere and nowhere.' Ohio native Chuck also was in the Air Force, retiring after serving 25 years.
'I walked in here for the first time — and I've lived in lots of places — and it was like coming home to a place I'd never been before,' Chuck Hanson said, 'but I felt like I'd been here before,'
The sense of belonging the Hansons have enjoyed among their revolving spiritual door saved Chuck's life this past summer.
He very nearly joined them on the other side July 18.
Suffering from a sinus infection, he got up that morning and coughed so hard that he passed out, hit the floor, wedged between the bed and the wall with his hands pinned behind him. He had smacked his head so hard on the wall that he broke the top two vertebrae in his spine. Either break should have killed him.
He came to 11 minutes later, stood up, got dressed, went to the bathroom, then headed for the emergency room in nearby Keosauqua. Within 20 minutes of getting a CT scan there, he was on a helicopter for University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, where he was placed in a stabilizing halo for four days. That didn't work, so he now sports titanium rods in his neck and a bone graft from his hip to repair the shattered top C1 vertebra.
'They had to do surgery to put Humpty Dumpty together again,' Chuck quipped. He'll wear a neck brace for another month or so.
He credits the spirits with rallying to hold his head in place until he could get to the hospital. Never losing his sense of humor, he now calls himself 'Chucky Wallbanger.'
Ironically, Joy had ruptured three discs in her back, so she had surgery July 23, the day after Chuck, and both went home in neck braces.
Chuck later found out it's normally impossible to breathe with a break at the top of his spine, let alone walk. When Moon came two weeks later, they got their explanation from the spirit realm.
'They said well, they couldn't stop the accident — it had to happen — but they helped ease my head down so there wouldn't be any further damage,' Chuck Hanson said. 'We asked who all was involved, and President Lincoln was there, and he says, 'You owe me $40 for a house call.' My comment back was, 'How do you want that?' And the comment coming back was, 'In fives,' because President Lincoln is on the five-dollar bill.'
President Lincoln has been a frequent visitor to the Mason House, with his voice coming through Moon's Telephone to the Dead on nearly every visit since 2012.
'He's been very fascinated with us and the involvement here,' Chuck Hanson said.
Lincoln likes to stand on the bridge and discuss family matters, but not the Civil War. He did, however, applaud the Hansons' plan to erect a plaque in honor of the soldiers who were hospitalized and died at the Mason House.
He said, 'Those (who) served, I salute them.' What a wonderful statement. He's still honoring those that died,'
Chuck Hanson said.
Mary Todd Lincoln has made her opinion known, as well, saying she wants to decorate Room 7, in which I stayed, because it 'wasn't presidential enough.' She wanted more gold in there, Joy Hanson said with a laugh. The president begged to differ, saying it's 'good enough the way it is — leave it alone,' Chuck Hanson added.
Civil War soldier Harold, who guards the inn, brought the president through as a surprise for the Hansons, who had been talking about going to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., where Moon also does sessions.
'I wanted to take Harold down there and introduce him to his president,' Chuck Hanson said. 'He heard us talking about that and went and flipped the tables in 2012 and ...
brought his president to meet me.'
'For days before that, we'd been finding pennies everywhere,' Joy Hanson said. 'Harold said, 'It was a clue.''
'They were all heads-up,' Chuck Hanson said. ' ...
Ever since then, it's been a very close relationship with him.'
And now, he's coming on his own, without Harold's escort.
How does all this spirited talk fit with the Hansons' Lutheran faith and religion in general?
'Who better than a Christian should be OK with life after death,' Joy Hanson said, 'because isn't that what we teach? And obviously there is, and it's a conscious existence. I think that's very comforting.'
'And who you are in life is who you are in death,' Chuck Hanson added. 'You don't get a magic robe and become a different person.'
When guests ask about Heaven in the sessions, he said they've received two answers: 'Jesus is the Way,' and 'Human words can't describe Heaven's beauty.' 'If you read in Revelation about the unspeakable beauty of Heaven, they match that up very closely,' he said. 'And they don't call it 'Heaven,' they call it 'Home,' which to me, is so warm and inviting. ...
'You have the ability to go back and forth and interact with family, and you get to see grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are born after you die. You will know them. It's part of a circular universe,' Chuck Hanson said. 'You will know them. It's not like you missed them, and you will be part of their life. You can be a part of their life, which is really neat. That reinforces the other side.
'There's no fear of death now, because of it.'
IF YOU GO
• What: Mason House Inn Bed & Breakfast
• Where: 21982 Hawk Dr., Bentonsport
• Route: 114 miles south of Cedar Rapids via Interstate 380/U.S. Highway 218, then right on County Road J40, wind through Bonaparte; in Bentonsport, turn left onto Sanford Street, then left onto Hawk Drive
• Rates: $74 to $89 inn rooms, $105 Caboose Cottage next-door; check-in 3 to 8 p.m., check-out before 11 a.m.
• Events: Saturday, Halloween Dinner and Ghost Stories, $75 rooms/$175 caboose, reservations required; Nov. 8 and 9, Ghost Hunting 101 and 102 with Chris Moon, 2 to 8 p.m., $75 plus room fee, reservations required, no Ouija boards allowed; 2015 ghost hunting classes Feb. 7 and 8, Aug. 1 and 2, Nov. 7 and 8
• For more information: (319) 592-3133; 1-(800) 592-3133 or email Stay@MasonHouseInn.com or Masonhouseinn.com