"Writing is no answer but when you feel deeply there is little else to do." -- James Baker Hall

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

How I Came to Camp Chesterfield

(Or What's a Nice Southern Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?)
When you live in the setting of a potential novel, say a magical and mysterious place like Camp Chesterfield--a place where the Spirits stand so close you can feel their breath on your skin, it's not unusual to be asked a question like, "So how did you get here? And what made you want to live here?" First, let me clarify, I actually like the feel of Spirit close by me, close as the dewy damp autumn fog of today, a palpable coolness that feels like a hug. Some of my favorite times to walk the grounds are when no one else is out--night time or early morning.

But I digress.  I was asked what brought me here.

Well, you see for nearly a decade before I arrived I was writing a novel --and I still haven't finished it-- about my great Aunt Arzelia Ransdall, Daddy's aunt who lived in Kentucky and was a medium. She trained at Camp Chesterfield. Daddy told endless stories about her boarding the train in Louisville and standing on the platform of the final train car in her fox furs, waving dramatically to her husband and children, "Goodbye! Goodbye!" she called, waving a hankie as if she was never coming back. Of course, she didn't need those fox furs. It was May and already getting warm. 

She rode the train all the way to Chesterfield, got off at the train station (where Jazzi's Flower Shop is now and the old depot has fallen down over the last years). She had her steamer trunk hoisted onto a horse-drawn wagon as if she were crossing the Great Plains in search of new prospects and life adventures.. Actually the wagon only pulled Arzelia and her companions about six blocks down the street, through the iron gate into Camp Chesterfield. One of the attending drivers probably carried her trunk into her room in either the Lily Hotel (now gone) or the Sunflower.  

I heard these stories throughout my life. There were many tales of Arzelia's adventures as a medium. I remember stories of, the spirits of her lost children banging their silver spoons on the trays of their high chairs in the kitchen, how the ghosts that visited her seances tipped the tables, and then there were the ones who woke up Arzelia's house guests with messages of hope from beyond the veil. Of course, when you are trying to sleep and not expecting a ghost (as my mother was not--and she had quite a story to tell about her nephew Billy)... well, even a message of hope or an answer to a prayer from beyond was enough to scare the Bejeezus out of anybody.  (Bejeezus is a reverential Southernism, I'm sure.)

Yes, I heard a novel's worth of stories about Camp Chesterfield, and so one deep, snowy January day my husband and I decided for some reason to drive four hours north in the snow. I wanted an adventure and I came to Chesterfield in search of someone who might have heard of my Aunt Arzelia. I'm not even sure what I expected, but at that time the Western Hotel was open and Rev. Mary Beth Hattaway smiled so sweetly at me. "Oh, how wonderful to see you and all of your people!" she said. And even though I wasn't sure what it meant to walk through the hotel door with all of my people then, well, I just felt overjoyed with her very Southern drawl and her smile and twinkling eyes. I exchanged some money for a room with steam heat that was fogging up the windows. 

When I asked where I might find the oldest medium who lived on the grounds and might know of my great aunt, she directed me down the street to an elderly lady of about 97 or so. "Don't be fooled," she advised me. She's still pretty sharp." So I trudged down the Western Avenue to Emma Kruger's house. Yes, she was wonderfully colorful, novel-worthy in fact. I sat and talked with her for about two hours, asking all kinds of questions, such as "How did a nice German lady like yourself come to Chesterfield?" And "Have you always been a medium?"  And other things. She kept trying to give me a reading, telling me about all my people who were standing around me, even though I assured her I had only come to find out about Camp Chesterfield itself and perhaps my aunt's time there.

"And did you live here in the 1950s and 60s?" I asked. "What was it like then?"

She said, "There is someone around you who likes fish.  Do you know someone who likes fish?"

"Maybe," I answered. "I have a lot of Catholic relatives. They eat a lot of fish."

She seemed very nice, not at all put out with me, even though she'd been sitting in her wheelchair for several hours and the television was still rumbling on with some game show in the background. I asked her about her studies there at Chesterfield and what was a platform dress.  I'd heard my Aunt spent a lot of money on her rhinestone dresses, her long white gloves, her shiny black button-up ankle boots. My father was fascinated with my aunt's apparel, for some reason.

"Is there someone around you who likes beer?" Emma asked. "I am sure there is someone around you who just loved his beer. Is it your father?"

"No. My father drank vodka and whisky. My grandfather maybe. He liked his Oertel's 92."

"Me too. I like Oertel's 92," she said.

I'm pretty thick sometimes, but the right question to ask finally hit me like a ton of bricks. "Have you eaten yet today? It's after one o'clock and I've kept you from your lunch."  She said the Meals on Wheels didn't come on Saturdays so she was used to going without lunch. I told her I would go and get her some lunch. "What would you like?"

"A fish sandwich," she said. "And a beer. I'd like a 32-ounce beer," she said. "I've run out and there's none in the refrigerator."

Sure, I said. I'll be right back. And it took about 30 minutes. She ate happily, wheeling herself up to the TV table I found and set in front of her.  Between bites she wanted to tell me about my people, but for some reason if it wasn't about Arzelia, I wasn't interested. Anyway, I hadn't come for a reading.  When I left she was happily sucking on her beer. That was probably not a good thing for me to have left her alone with that beer and other obvious way to dispose of it. I didn't know her daughter didn't like her to have beer.

So I came to Camp Chesterfield to research a novel, to indulge myself in the sensory delights of the past--the sound of a train whistle in the middle of the night, steam pipes knocking, footsteps in the hallway. Wait--! I thought we were the only guests at the hotel! I kept coming back. I started taking classes. I regaled my writing friends in Kentucky with stories of Arzelia and I kept trying to find her factual footprints in the memories of the old mediums and the half-disintegrating hotel registers in the museum.

Finally, I just moved here. I took classes and love it. I developed some really sweet relationships with the people living here, and a few who had passed over, but stayed on in spirit. Some days when the COVID seeps underground and we mediums can return to the platform, you will find me here, standing where my Aunt Arzelia once stood probably. In the meantime, however, I'll be Zooming online to a Message Service near you, or appearing on the roster for the Midwest Mediumship Conference in October. I hope you come to love Camp Chesterfield as much as I have.

And if you've read all the way to the end of this, and you happen to be a publisher, literary agent, or movie producer, I have stories you wouldn't believe. That novel is still open for takers.


  1. So far, I'm very interested.

    I'm quite surprised to find you so deeply (and enthusiastically) involved in the realm of the intuitive. I'm wondering though, are you writing a novel or a biography? Your aunt sounds fascinating!

  2. Hi Peter. Yes. In this case a novel tentatively titled "In a Certain Slant of Light."