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A spirited saloon

by DEVIN HEILMAN/Staff writer
| October 22, 2015 9:00 PM

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<p>Manager of The White Horse Saloon Dolli Massender talks about a shadowy figure that is often seen near the windows of Room 2 on Wednesday at The White Horse Saloon in Spirit Lake.</p>

SPIRIT LAKE — Coeur d'Alene Press photographer Jake Parrish received a mighty scare Wednesday while investigating the ghosts of the White Horse Saloon and Café in Spirit Lake.

His eyes were focused on his camera when he heard nearby floorboards creak. Then, a person appeared, causing Parrish to nearly jump out of his skin.

“He just scared me,” Parrish said with a laugh. “I thought at first that he was someone who worked for the hotel who dressed up to scare us. That was my initial reaction, after my first reaction was being terrified.”

Former White Horse manager Danny Dobyns of Spirit Lake didn’t mean to startle Parrish, but when Dobyns quietly emerged from one of the second-floor rooms of the old hotel while wearing a hat that uncannily resembled that of a Wild West prospector, he seemed to appear out of nowhere.

"Well, I should have done that differently," Dobyns said, and proceeded to descend the squeaky, creaky wooden staircase as Parrish caught his breath.

"I haven't been that scared in a long time," Parrish said.

Startling encounters are not so uncommon in the 108-year-old White Horse. Its resident spirit, the "Big Girl," has been known to roam the second floor and appear to be standing in the windows of Room 2.

“She likes to stroll up and down the hallway, and she likes to play tricks on people every once in awhile,” said White Horse daytime manager Dolli Massender. “She’s known to be seen in the shadows in the windows from the street.”

Massender has worked at the White Horse for nearly 10 years and has seen her fair share of weird, paranormal goings on.

“She’s played tricks on me in the restaurant, in the dish room,” Massender said. “I’ll put dishes away into the rack where they can dry, and I’ve turned and one of the plates goes flying off. I just say, ‘Big Girl, knock it off’ … there’s just no way that a dish stacked like that is going to come off.”

She said when guests inquire about the ghosts of the White Horse, she lets them know that yes, it is haunted.

“I have seen a ghost-like apparition, where you feel something and you turn and you just kind of get a glimpse of something,” she said. "Doors close behind you, and you look around and you know that door wasn’t open. I’ve felt a cool breeze on the back of my neck, or something pushing me down the hallway."

Massender said the legend of the "Big Girl" goes back several years. No one knows the name of the unseen resident, who may have suffered a tragedy when she was still among the living.

“The rumor that I heard was that she used to clean rooms, way back in the day, and her son got away from her, ran down the stairs, ran out into the street and got run over by a horse and buggy,” Massender said. “But that’s a rumor. I don’t know if it’s the truth.”

The White Horse was entered into the National Register of Historic places in February of 1979. It is the oldest operating saloon in Idaho and seethes with local history. Its walls are adorned with antique saw blades and photos of the past, and separating the saloon from the hotel are black iron bars that Massender said are directly from a cell in the old Spirit Lake jail. The dark wooden floors and staircase are original, as are the bars in the saloon. And it's a perfect place for a haunting; in the 1970s the second floor was used as a Halloween haunted house. On the vacant and gutted third floor, an ancient TV set sits alone in an empty room, with the words "Casper was here" scrawled in the dust.

“I love this building,” said Dolli's son, Dean Massender. “I love the fact that it’s still holding the same back bar and the same front bar.”

Dean said he calls the resident spirit "Mama Jo" because of someone he was close to who has since passed on.

“My second mother, which was Jo, she passed away and then things started happening upstairs,” he said. “I connect her with it.”

Although he hasn't had any paranormal encounters, he has heard the stories.

"I’ve just heard people talking about hearing a lady walking down the hallway, hearing a lady over here and a lady over there,” he said. “The only one I can think of connected with this whole Maine Street is Jo," who used to run Jo's Hole, which is down the street from the White Horse.

Dobyns said when he worked at the White Horse and lived above the saloon, he was there all hours of the day and many times felt as though he was not alone. He never heard disembodied voices, but he did hear footsteps that were not accompanied by a body.

“You’d be going down the hall and there’d be nobody there," he said. "You’d open the door and the footsteps would still be there.”

In the heart of downtown, the White Horse Saloon towers over Maine Street and welcomes visitors to enjoy a meal, a beverage and a good night's sleep. Its iconic circular sign blinks with friendly lights and its patio is a place for social gatherings on sunny days.

But the secrets of those who have trod upon its floors for more than a century may never be told ... unless the "Big Girl" decides to whisper them into unsuspecting ears as she wanders the White Horse's hallways.

If you have a ghost story to share this Halloween season, email Devin Heilman at dheilman@cdapress.com or call 664-8176, ext. 1111.