Baraboo haunted house will support new nonprofit

August 22, 2018

It’s only August, but it’s already starting to look like Halloween behind the Ringling House Bed & Breakfast.

Its owners have scared up a small crew to help them build and operate a haunted house in October. Money raised will support a nonprofit Stuart Koehler and Julie Hearley established to improve and protect the Ringling estate off Eighth Street.

“We funded the restoration of the main house with our own money, but that doesn’t last forever,” Koehler said. “We’re asking the rest of the community to help us out. And we’re giving something back in return.”

“Phantom Carnival” is being set up in a carriage house behind the bed-and-breakfast, and will expand to cover part of the lawn out back. Where once circus impresarios’ horses whinnied, this fall visitors will shriek.

“We should have enough stuff to scare people,” Koehler said.

He and Hearley created the Friends of the Charles and Henry Ringling Estate, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the buildings and grounds once owned by the brothers of circus fame. The one-acre estate includes the main house, which the couple operates as a bed-and-breakfast; the carriage house; a cottage; and a barn.

They hope to run the haunted house for two years, then convert the carriage house into an event center. This will require replacing the 1901 building’s original wiring, and adding bathrooms and a kitchen.

Koehler and Hearley already are building the haunted house’s maze, with help from Shelley Mordini and Jacob Carignan, who last year worked at the Circus of Ghouls at Circus World. Mordini offers “haunted tours” of Baraboo on her motorized rickshaw.

“She’s the perfect person to have on the team,” Hearley said.

“I thought, ’What a great idea,” she said. “I am the ghost lady of Baraboo.”

Carignan designed the maze and contributed to its full name, “Phantom Carnival: One-Way Ticket to Trepidation.” On Monday, he helped the rest of the crew build walls from shipping pallets. All around them lay spooky props.

“It was just working it out in my head, what would be the scariest things?” Carignan said.

The maze will feature mechanized pieces, dramatic lighting and themed rooms. The crew will be looking for adult volunteers once the haunted house opens Oct. 3. “We need spooks, and we need ticket takers and monitors,” Koehler said.

He and Hearley have long considered creating a charity to help fund restoration work, and a year ago decided a haunted house could be an ideal source of seed money. They brought Mordini and Carignan into the fold and started construction earlier this month. The owners previously used the carriage house for storage.

Tickets will cost $15. “Phantom Carnival” will be open on Friday and Saturday the first two weekends of October, adding Thursdays the final two weekends before Halloween.

The Ringling home and surrounding property was owned by the circus family for a century before Koehler and Hearley bought it in 2014 and opened their bed-and-breakfast the next year. The Colonial Revival home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Koehler and Hearley have become active participants in local affairs, helping to launch events such as the downtown Cocoa Crawl and First Night celebration. Their short-term goal in hosting a haunted house for young adults is to create an entertaining Halloween event: Their long-term goal is to create a place for all types of community events.

“I think there’s a dearth of family-oriented events,” Koehler said.

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