A Graduate Returns To Investigate
Story and Photos by Tanae Clayson
I was graduated from Pocatello High School, which has the usual complement of honors, academics, and championships, but also is known by its students for something else.
Built in 1892, it’s one of Idaho’s old structures, which no doubt plays a role in its reputation for being haunted. Years after graduation, when circumstances brought me back for a visit, I decided to take a closer look at those rumors. Parking next to the looming edifice, I recalled the impression of my school days that it resembles a castle. When I opened the car door, the wind tugged at my tousled hair. Gray clouds moving swiftly overhead teased the parched soil. It struck me as appropriate that my eerie mission should be undertaken on such an eerie day.
I went to the office and received a large, smiley-faced sticker that read, “Visitor.” I was told that Fred, the custodian for Poky High, was busy unloading supplies from a truck, which would take a half-hour to complete. Meanwhile, I roamed the halls of the familiar complex.
I passed a big hall window in the library, and looked out to the grounds. A large rock painted with fresh graffiti, a one-way street, and parts of old-town Pocatello presented themselves. It was impossible to look at this portion of town without glimpsing its history. Examining the lawn, I imagined President Theodore Roosevelt being welcomed with a large band concert and picnic, and a similar reception six years later, in 1908, for President William Howard Taft. I recalled the papers of Taft that described thousands crowding around him at the school to shake his hand. He must have patiently shaken every one, because he later wrote that he “developed a pain in the joint of the [right] big toe due, I suppose, to standing so long when shaking hands in one position. Doctor suspects a little gout, but this [is] too aristocratic for me.”
I stepped away from the window and took a long look at the library, where a thousand- pound bell once resided. What would it have been like to hear the bell make its last, mournful toll upon falling during the fire of 1914? By then, the school had been standing strong for twenty-two years. The disastrous fire broke out on December 16, a bitter-cold day, according to the Pocatello Tribune. The janitors struggled to keep the building warm that day, and later, when most of the children had left for lunch, one janitor noticed smoke coming from the boiler room. The staff thought it came from ashes they had been raking from the furnace, but then they found fire smoldering in the ceiling above the furnace. The men dug into the plaster in several places, which revealed that the fire already had spread. It consumed the first and second floors before the fire brigade even arrived.
I looked up at the ceiling, imagining where the bell would have been before buckling and crashing through the floors to the basement. What would it have been like to watch helplessly as my school burned to the ground? “Many a tear was in evidence when graduates, parents and friends, attracted to the school grounds by the fire, realized the old dear place was doomed,” O.B. Steely had written in the Pocatello Tribune. When the bell fell from its tower, three muffled tones were audible, and it seemed truly fitting to the occasion.”
Continuing my journey through the main hall, I glimpsed the face of a new generation with every step. Who knew one hallway could contain so much history—and maybe something more, the long-rumored ghosts? Weird feelings, voices, ghostly figures, and strong smells had been experienced and reported by people through the years. The Southeast Idaho Paranormal Organization (SEIPO) investigated the school in 2009 and claimed to have found some interesting indications of ghostly behavior, but could any of it be true? Sepia-colored images of 1920 stared right through me from the walls, unable to answer.
I heard Fred, the janitor, as he enthusiastically greeted and high-fived students in the hall. “You all have a great day!” Even when I attended Pocatello High, Fred was a celebrity, and I was glad that hadn’t changed. He still had those strands of wispy white hair and that ever-present, large grin, revealing a few gaps from missing teeth. The wrinkles in his face were deeper, but he moved around with just as much excitement and ease. He saw and greeted me just as he had done when I was a student, “Honey, I remember you!” I laughed, surprised he could recall me from among so many other students.
We sat in the cafeteria, catching up before he offered to take me to the most haunted spot on campus: the auditorium balcony. “You wanna go up there?” The question was asked with a nervous glance; this from a man who never frowned, and yet, wrinkles of worry now creased his face. Before reading this body language, I responded, “Sure!” My quick response must have changed his mood instantly, because he smiled and his excitement started to show through again. “I’ll take you up there, honey.”
We walked up the stairs of the Whittier Building, past the art department and up to the third floor. “You can feel a presence up there. I haven’t lately, but it feels like it’s just beyond that set of doors.” The stairs ended, revealing only a small classroom to the right and two large wooden doors directly in front of us. I had been in the auditorium many times for plays, musicals, and assemblies, but had never set foot on the dark and foreboding balcony.
Fred tugged on the curved handles of the old framed doors and pulled out his ring of keys. There must have been twenty keys on the ring, but he found the exact one almost before I could blink. He pushed the door open and disappeared in the darkness beyond a crack of light from the
staircase. I followed, hesitantly letting go of the door. Instantly, the hinges squealed as the door sealed itself shut with an echoing thud. Blackness and silence.
The smell of dust tickled my nose as I squinted, struggling to see. Not even the glow of an exit sign could be discerned from this corner of the auditorium. I cautiously took a step forward, and shivered. The temperature was much cooler in this strange, black, silent recess of the building. For the next few minutes, I listened as Fred told me stories filled with history, superstition, and supernatural phenomena. In that very spot, he mentioned that a white, grayish cloud had floated up to another janitor and had gone right through him. My eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark and I looked around cautiously as I listened. Could the story be true?
A few minutes later, I saw a railing of the balcony and slowly made my way toward it. Over Fred’s voice, I heard groaning from the heaters on the stage. Fred stopped talking and silence ensued. “Do you kinda feel somethin?” His voice trailed off . . . “In your opinion?”
I paused for a moment, uncertain how to respond. “What do I feel?” I thought. I felt cold, but that was explainable. The room was drafty. I attempted an answer. “I don’t know . . . but whether or not there really are ghosts or demons here, this building has history.”
Fred came up beside me at the railing and said, very seriously, “The Bible speaks of demons.” He paused, and I waited. “I don’t get the feeling like I did before, but I think what it is,” he pointed to the upper balcony, “it’s a home, kinda like you have your own home, and it leaves and comes when it wants.” He looked out to the stage. “And maybe it isn’t here at this present time, but later, through the night, when there’s no school and no activity, it can maybe get a little eerie.” His words seemed to hover like dust particles.
After we left the balcony, I waved goodbye to Fred and made my way back to my car. The wind had stopped blowing and the sun was breaking through the murky clouds. Looking back one more time at Pocatello High School, I took in its grandeur and historic surroundings. Other schools might have nicer campuses, or higher achievements, or more recognition, but Fred was right about one thing: this school is a home. Regardless of whether spirits roam its hallways, returning felt like a homecoming to me, as well as a visual reminder of the history of my hometown. [/private]