Hysterically historical: This tour will make you squeal with defright

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John Rice

On autumn evenings, Oak Park's streets bear an eerie resemblance to a fictional Illinois town — Haddonfield. The flat landscape, rustling leaves underfoot, the quiet rows of houses. It's an appropriate setting for the "Haunted Squeals on Wheels" tour. Thanks to the collaboration of Oak Park Segway, Greenline Wheels and Rickshaw Rick, customers have three modes of transportation for this spooky journey.

The tour's first stop is none other than 141 S. Oak Park Avenue. The Schneider Building was constructed at this location in 1922. The second floor was devoted to a performing arts center for children. It's now the domain of hard-bitten reporters for the Wednesday Journal.

"Journalists don't believe in ghosts," Rick Carter began, before inserting the inevitable "but …" Rumors of a lingering child have yet to be dispelled.

Fortunately, his listeners were protected from the paranormal by flashing vests. These were Level Two nuclear-powered vests capable of warding off evil spirits, said Carter, "such as cars." Three of the participants rode Segways, while yours truly lounged in Carter's rickshaw. Traveling on these contraptions in the dark is peculiar enough, let alone listening to shadowy tales.

We next pulled up to an attractive 19th-century house on East Avenue. Carter described strange goings-on that afflicted a family there in the 1970s. The family, fed up with the ghostly screams of a long-dead female resident, held a séance to contact the former owners. They followed this up with an exorcism to finally show them the door.

Carter explained, as he pedaled toward the next destination, that this was a case of recurring paranormal activity. Such ghosts often had their lives abruptly interrupted and need to periodically release their pent-up psychic energy. The ghost haunting OPRF High School appeared to have the same problem.

As the group pulled up in front of the north entrance of the school, Carter invoked the spirits of OPRF past: Ray Kroc, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ernest Hemingway. The high school phantom, though, was not among the school's celebrities. Like most spirits, it did its haunting late at night. Security cameras captured a "whooshing" sound, as the poltergeist invisibly opened the north doors and escaped. But there have been rumors of a Huskie Hulk. Carter was proud to add that Oak Park contains two of 10 hottest spots for paranormal activity in the state.

The spookiness continued over at Cheney Mansion, where an eerie glow came from a third-floor window. It looked like two red eyes but one of the tour members thought it might be coming from the exit lights. Carter described a bathtub in the mansion that had to be periodically emptied despite the fact that its plumbing (eek) had been disconnected. And workers sometimes find that after they turn off the third floor lights, they go on again.

Carter's tour partner, Luke Thornton, took over the narration at the next stop. He trained his flashlight on the roof line of Row Street Apartments, the E.E. Roberts building at Grove and Ontario. The tour members were staggered to see gargoyles gazing down on them. As if this weren't scary enough, Thornton recounted the story of a "glowing, floating lady" who was seen passing through doors on the premises.

As the tour heads down darkened streets, the partners engage in "guerilla marketing," greeting startled bystanders. Many are interested enough to grab an orange flier. Carter noted that he is becoming better known in the neighborhood. Some seek him out for rides. Others are surprised to see him still pedaling in the autumn chill. "Oh, you're still around," they say, as if he were a ghost. Rickshaw season extends from Earth Day to Halloween.

"Business ebbs and flows," he said, "but overall it's slow and steady growth. The deposit slips say that something good is going on."

The last stop was Austin Gardens. This was the former home of the man who made sure Oak Parkers couldn't get their hands on spirits of the inebriating kind. The park provided a rustic setting for Carter's account of the 1918 train accident that filled the mass grave at Forest Park's Showmen's Rest with 56 victims. His story was enhanced by the tinkling of wind chimes that one of the circus performers had with them on the train though the spooky sound seemed to be coming from Ontario Street!

Thornton, whose whereabouts were unknown during the circus train story, originated the haunted tour during the last week of October 2011. As owner of Oak Park's Segway Experience Center, he didn't want to offer rides without some additional entertainment. He started a "Frank Lloyd Wright Tour," a combined Wright and Hemingway tour and, his most popular excursion, a "Chocolate Tour."

For the haunted tour, he hired Your Favorite Story Tellers to tell tales in Oak Park's most evocative settings. "We sold out every night," Thornton said, "We got Greenline involved."

"One night, we had a person who was blind and was unable to ride a Segway. I called Rickshaw Rick's Tours and Taxis, so he could participate in the tour. Rick and I quickly developed a relationship that enhances our businesses to this day."

The partners, who are both natural storytellers, made the decision not to hire pros this year. "We also decided the tour would no longer tell fictional stories like last year. So we began our research into true, unexplained tales relevant to our area." In addition, they expanded the tour to the whole month of October.

Thornton is pleased with his burgeoning business. "We're getting a lot of repeat customers. We had 500 rides last year and 2,000 so far this year." Segways are appealing in several ways. They are "green machines" that wheel almost silently over the terrain. In fact, Thornton refers to his customers as "gliders." However, not everyone is physically capable of operating them.

That's why Carter stepped up to partner with Segway. "I would help customers who didn't pass muster with the Segway." Carter also worked with Thornton to uncover the stories and plan the route. "We came up with stories that had been reported, instead of ghost stories."

Next year, they won't wait for autumn to recount these tales. "Luke and I are going to make it a regular tour on summer nights. We want to add some stories about Dominican University and actually visit Showmen's Rest."

Thornton seconded the motion. "Next year, we'll offer it once a month, from May to October." The 90-minute circuit, covering Oak Park specters, costs customers $44. This is a bargain, considering that the Wright Segway tour costs $65 and the "Chocolate Tour" is priced at $50.

But you'll have to wait till next year. By then, who knows what apparitions they'll uncover.

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