School ghost |

School ghost

Recent upgrades of the Aspen Country Day School/Music School campus include a thorough makeover of the property’s first structure. Built by Col. George Newman in 1903, this building was known as “the bungalow” for 40 years. The bungalow maintained its original grace through several remodels and remuddlings. No one knows whether its resident ghost survived.

Newman, an early Aspen pioneer, owned one of the area’s most profitable mines, the Percy LaSalle. He constructed a tunnel from the site of the bungalow, a Castle Creek property, to tap the Percy LaSalle from below. He also built his own electricity plant and joined other innovators in applying that energy to mining.

Newman used the four-bedroom bungalow as an office to oversee his mining interests and as a second home. Mahogany paneled the main room, his living room. His office, finished in cherry, housed a safe. In an era of slow transportation, Newman maintained another residence in Denver. His acreage there included a track for his primary passion, horse racing.

Aspen Country Day School housed primary through 12th grades in the bungalow during its first few years. The class I taught, a combined third and fourth grade, shared the basement with the combined first and second grade. Each fall, we installed a partition to split the room. In the summer, the music festival cafeteria occupied that space with table seating. When Walter Paepcke’s Aspen Co. bought and restored the building as a restaurant in 1946, it had installed along three walls of the room.

Before the founding of Country Day School, I worked for the music festival and lived on the top floor of the bungalow. During quiet nights, the old building produced eerie noises. Plumbing creaked, and small, furry animals scampered about. The old building sighed and groaned as it withstood time and recovered from winters’ snow loads.

My students discovered one source of scuttling sounds: a bushy-tailed wood rat had taken up residence in the classroom ceiling. When we examined the nest, we discovered a collection of metal pencil ends, aluminum can pop-tops and other pilfered items that otherwise would have remained buried in the students’ desks.

Adjacent to my classroom was the kitchen. One day, a group of students gathered in the kitchen with Carter Hall, the school’s founder and headmaster. One asked about the purpose of a metal ring attached to the floor. Carter told them a woman named Bess had been chained by her neck there and forgotten. When she tried to escape, she pulled off her head. According to Carter, her ghost still haunts the school.

Thereafter, students attributed unidentified sounds to “Mad Bess.” Younger students believed the tale. Older students, who longed for a real ghost, did not discourage the younger ones’ ardor.

A couple of years later, my students wanted to find out whether Bess roamed the building in the dark. They convinced me to host them overnight in the main lobby. Charlie Hemenway, the headmaster, had several sons in the school, including one in my class. The older brothers made sure that Bess made an appearance: They rolled a globe down a nearby stairway. A student screamed, “It’s Mad Bess’ head!” No one slept for the rest of the night.

I hope the renovation did not spook Mad Bess.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at

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