The Cantina Ghosts, Part 1

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.

Continued on Wednesday, July 18

Sorry guys, this page is copyright by the author, 2012. You do not have permission to copy this for any reason. Please learn how to cite your work.

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