MALVERN – Malvern Manor sells frights and fun as a supposed hotbed for paranormal activity in Mills County – but not everyone is happy with the portrayal of the building’s history.
Located just off Main Street in a Mills County town experiencing a rebirth through business development, recreation and the arts, Malvern Manor offers a chance for the bold to experience encounters with shadow figures, voices, chills and other things that go bump in the night.
“It’s interesting – as far as experiences go, it runs the gamut,” co-owner and operator Josh Heard said of brushes with the extrasensory. “It’s a very interesting place.”
Heard considers it a “happy little accident” that he found the home, a 10,000-square-foot building with a sprawling layout that was initially a hotel and became a group home for those with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.
While filming a documentary on the paranormal at Classic Cafe in Malvern, Heard met Quincy Hunt, then-owner of the manor building. Hunt let Heard’s team inside.
“I experienced more in two hours there than I had in a year and a half of investigating,” Heard said. “After two hours there, I was hooked.”
From there Heard, a Randolph native who lives in Malvern, convinced Hunt to open the building to the public for investigations and tours. In the summer of 2015, Hunt broke the news to Heard that he was moving and needed to sell the building. If Heard couldn’t figure out a way to purchase the property, the tours were going to end.
Kurt Fricke operates Helping Hands for Senior Plans in Omaha with his wife, Carol. Kurt Fricke caught Heard talking about Malvern Manor on the radio, so he took the family to check it out and experienced all manner of activity: “moans, screams, the eerie feeling of getting watched.”
“I always watched this stuff on TV,” Fricke said. “I thought ‘Ah, it’s TV. It’s baloney.’ But after the first time at Malvern Manor, I was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this stuff is real.’”
— Mike Brownlee (@mikebrownlee) February 13, 2017
Fricke said he experienced moans, screams, footsteps and flashlights turning on and off unprovoked while there.
The second time Fricke went to Malvern Manor, Heard told them the property was being sold and the tours might end. Fricke, with no previous experience in owning a haunted house, asked how much the building was going for.
“I know this stuff is legit,” Fricke said during a tour of the manor.
Heard joined Kurt and Carol Fricke, their son Josh and niece Jenna, along with Allison Carranza, in purchasing the building for $75,000 in May 2016.
Malvern Manor offers walkthrough tours year-round, which consist of a 30-minute guided tour of the building, discussing the history and paranormal activity. Visitors are then allowed to roam the building “and hopefully experience something for themselves,” Heard said.
Overnight stays allow for amateur and professional investigators to scour the manor from 4 p.m. until noon the following day. Heard said he and others have experienced disembodied voices, shadow figures and “odd noises that can’t be explained away.”
“There’s a lot of cat and mouse – you’ll hear something, go after it, then hear something in the opposite direction. This will go on and on,” he said. “There’s also physical object manipulation – we have wheelchairs that will move on their own. A few of the resident spirits like to play with balls there, roll back and forth.”
One ghost who supposedly lives in the home is Inez Gibson, a 12-year-old girl found dead in a closet hanging from a jump rope in 1901. On the tour, Fricke pointed out what they call “Inez’s room,” where they’ve heard her name on recordings.
“My daughter asked the ghost how old she was,” Fricke said. “She said, ‘12.’”
Another ghost is Gracie, a supposed schizophrenic about whom the owners didn’t have much information. But they noted voices in the room have said the name Grace or Gracie often. A wheelchair and bed, with the mattress leaning against the wall, sit in the room. Fricke played a recording taken in Gracie’s room that features background noise before a woman’s voice is heard saying “Hello.”
Fricke explained that they leave the Malvern Manor setting like they found it, save for occasionally placing “trigger objects” to help inspire the undead to make their presence known.
Josh Bellows of Council Bluffs said he’s been curious about ghosts and the paranormal since a sighting when he was 10. During a stay in February 2016, he and a friend investigated for three hours without much success.
“Later in the night, I went exploring on my own. Well, scared the (crap) outta me,” he said in a Facebook message. “I went upstairs alone with a flashlight. I started walking down one of the corridors, the one with the attic stairs at the end of it.”
Bellows said he made it about two rooms into the house – about 20 feet – and then stopped to make observations.
“I shined the light up and down the hall and into a couple rooms, not seeing anything but definitely hearing creaks and things like that,” he said. “The feeling is what got to me. It felt bad. Like I had no reason to be there. I looked again down the hall and told myself to keep going. I couldn’t. Physically and mentally, could not move.”
He continued: “I told myself, ‘This is what you’re here for, go!’ Still couldn’t move. It was awesome and unsettling. I probably stood still for 1-2 minutes.”
Bellows said the “feeling in the manor was intense the whole time I was there.”
Malvern Manor was the subject of the Feb. 10 episode of TLC’s “Paranormal Lockdown,” a series in which ghost-hunting hosts Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman stay in various haunts for 72 hours and try to commune with the metaphysical.
In looking for the “malevolent entities of the mysterious Malvern Manor,” Groff and Weidman took a small crew and nifty collection of equipment – night vision lenses, vibration sensors, audio recording devices and various other gadgets and gizmos – to Malvern, a town of about 1,100.
Malvern Manor was built as the Cottage Hotel in the 1880s and was the town’s first hotel during a boom time when the Wabash train line was bustling.
“Malvern was growing a lot back then and the Cottage Hotel – it became a place to go, a destination for some,” Heard said.
The hotel went through a handful of owners and, eventually, was converted to a nursing home. In 1959, Geraldine and Hap Reid purchased the facility and operated it as the Nishna Cottage nursing home until 1976, when state inspectors decided that the halls were not wide enough to roll a bed down, therefore making it ineligible to house such a business.
The nursing home patients were moved to another facility in Malvern, and the Nishna Cottage became a residential care facility. Clients suffered from multiple personality, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug addiction and other ailments.
The Reids owned the building until early 2005, according to Denise O’Banion of Glenwood, whose husband, Louis, was the grandson of the Reids.
“Grandma was booted out; she financially lost the building in 2005,” O’Banion said. “They shut down months later because the new owner wouldn’t fix the fire code violations.”
O’Banion said she’s frustrated with Heard and the manor because Reid’s name has been used in promotional material that mentioned neglect and abuse of clients at Nishna Cottage.
“The only owner they mention are the Reids,” O’Banion said. “They’re trying to profit off the mentally ill that were treated pretty well.”
Heard said that the abuse claims came after the Reids lost the building.
“They were hearing that I was claiming abuse took place from their grandmother – which is not the case,” Heard said. “The main claims of abuse came after she had retired.”
A request by The Nonpareil for information on any reports of abuse with the Iowa Department of Human Services is pending.
O’Banion said she wants to protect Geraldine Reid’s legacy.
“We just want to tell our story on Grandma. And what a nice person she was,” she said. “Portraying it as paranormal, as a family we don’t care about that.”
In a 2003 Nonpareil story about Nishna Cottage, Geraldine Reid said, “This is where my heart is.” At the time, there were about 20 residents who called the cottage home, each either with a disability or a mental illness as a result of previous substance abuse.
The residents and Reid were known throughout a supportive Malvern community.
“We always go over to the (Glenwood) amphitheater in the summer. We take a bus over there, and they just get such a kick out it seeing the shows there,” Reid said in 2003. “We all go to the dining room and eat together, we have activities, we have church, together. This is a family.”
Heard said information on the Malvern Manor website has been updated in regard to mentions of the Reids and any abuse.
“All of that information has been improved,” he said. “We don’t want that around.”
O’Banion and a group of family members took a tour of the home recently and met with Heard.
“We’re not trying to run their family’s name in the mud at all. We don’t want to sensationalize anything,” Heard said. “I wanted to make it ultimately clear that that’s the last thing on my mind. I don’t like stepping on toes – I just don’t.”
O’Banion also takes issue with the characterization of Inez Gibson’s death. She pointed to a contemporary account of the incident in the Malvern Leader, which noted a three-person panel and two doctors concluded it was an accident. The newspaper noted Gibson was known to sometimes dangle the jump rope around herself. A folding chair, closed and laying on the floor, was found beneath her.
O’Banion also said her research shows the death didn’t happen at the manor.
“I’m upset about distorting the Malvern history,” O’Banion said. “They’re lying about how they came up with their paranormal people.”
About Gibson’s death, Heard said “that’s a heck of an accident to have happen to someone.”
“We’re not sure if happened (at the manor) or near where it happened,” he continued. “What we do know – the reason we have that name, that was a name we kept getting on (recordings). It sounded like a little girl saying her name when asked. It was very interesting. We don’t have a clue where she died or why she would be there. From what we can see, she is very, very active in our building.”
O’Banion said she’s unaware of a Grace or Gracie that was a schizophrenic there during the Reids’ ownership. O’Banion said she’s continuing to research the history of the area and the building but is glad references to Geraldine Reid have been removed from the Malvern Manor website.
About the “Paranormal Lockdown” episode, she said the family is grateful “they did not mention Grandma or the clients she cared for.”
“We did not think it was very convincing,” she said of the show. “But everyone believes things differently.”
Count Heard and the Frickes among the believers.
Asked why the location is a wellspring for preternatural activity, Heard noted many of the people that stayed in the building when it was operational didn’t have stability in their lives.
“As far as stability, the house was on the one thing that was constant, that was the thing that was home,” he said. “The people there became more than staff, they were family. It was like a family there. I think that has a lot to do with it, why they might be sticking around.”
– Micah Mertes of the BH News Service contributed to this story, which contains Nonpareil archive material.