Tales from the Haunted Valley


This is a collection of short stories from author and teacher Jason Lee Willis's creative writing students at Maple River High School. The Haunted Valley is a term used by local natives to refer to an area south of Mankato, where the Maple River School District can be found. Inspired by the local tales, students and staff submitted their own "camp fire" stories for this volume. All profits from the sale of this book are invested into creative writing materials for the students.



Book Description

About the Haunted Valley

For students attending Maple River High School in southern Blue Earth County, Minnesota, this is what they often think they know: it is the most boring place on the earth.

What high school student doesn’t want to fly the coop in search of greener pastures? After all, if you were to spend half-an-hour of your life driving through our school district, you’d mostly see farms, fields, and a few rivers.

Dull, right?

Perspective often allows adults the opportunity to see things much differently, and as the kooky storyteller at Maple River, I see it as my job to provide that expository scene found in most movies where the teacher reveals the hidden truth about the nondescript small town in which the story is set. “Hey, did you know...”

At another school, my students might have written tales of the Jolly Green Giant and Sprout, Paul Bunyan and his bovine exploits, or the Adventures of King Kernel and his Corn Palace. Fortunately, Blue Earth County was loaded with intrigue, mystery, history, and the bizarre. Since I’m an English teacher (and not a history teacher bound to just the facts), these are a few of the stories I tell them about their home town.

Beneath the surface of these fertile farm fields are nuggets of lore just waiting to be mined. While the Civil War raged in the east, pioneers in the area feared for their lives during the Dakota War of 1862. One of the four towns that forms the Maple River community, Good Thunder, is named in tribute for a man who chose peace rather than violence, altering the course of our local history. Prior to that, French scientist Joseph Nicollet crossed through our district twice while making his map of the upper Mississippi territory, leaving behind local labels such as Minnesota, Mankato, Blue Earth, LeHillier, and LeSueur while investigating the legends of the Dakota’s Spirit Lake, the Ojibwe’s Turtle Island, and the most curious legend of them all...the Undine.

Maple River High School

The Undine? Even though Nicollet prominently labeled the region of south central Minnesota as “The Undine Region,” the name did not catch on—probably for good reasons. You see, the Undine has two possible meanings. First, it is an old Germanic tale (very similar to the Little Mermaid tale) about a water nymph haunting a mysterious pool of water, waiting to lure a young human to his eventual death. Romantic, huh?

The second meaning is more nefarious yet more probable. Before the popularity of the Undine in the tragic German love story, it was a term used by alchemists (another name for a wizard, Harry) in centuries past for the element of water. (Sylph, Salamander, and Gnome were Air, Fire, and Earth). Do a little Wikipedia digging into alchemy, and you will learn that these wizards/scientists studied these four primitive elements on a quest to discover the missing element of even older lore: the Philosopher’s Stone (Yes, Harry, from those fantasy books). As a scientist in 1838, Nicollet would have known this since alchemy shifted to respectable chemistry as recently as the previous century. Besides making stops at any lakes that had potential connections to Indian lore, Nicollet also made a point of visiting the legendary places written by his countrymen, LeSueur and Lahontan.

While Lahontan’s name is all but lost to us, LeSueur has a town, county, and river named after him because of Nicollet, who just wouldn’t let it go. Both Lahontan and LeSueur were aristocratic explorers and fur traders back in the 1680s when hardly anything was known about America west of the Ohio River Valley. Instead of focusing on making money by selling furs, both men were lured in by rumors of a western tribe (the Dakota) who painted their faces with strange blue paint (the blue earth). Despite the inherent danger, both men made trips to this place where the earth bled blue. In their accounts, they both found a place where a massive mound of copper vitriol was found beside a river near a watershed divide.

After both men privately visited the site, Pierre Charles LeSueur made a really big deal about what he found. He took some of the copper vitriol he found and traveled all the way back to France to seek an audience with the king. After trouble with financing, an Indian uprising that threatened Canada, and English pirates (yes, this is a true story), he finally found funding for an expedition that gave him a private army and hired miners to travel back to this location so that he could open a copper mine near present day Mankato (almost a thousand miles from anybody who could use the copper, by the way). Thanks to his in-laws (who rediscovered the Mississippi River delta for him), he and his expedition sailed all the way up river where he built Fort L’Huillier, named after the alchemist who verified the samples he brought to France were the real dead. According to history, LeSueur and crew spent a year mining tons of copper ore, which he faithfully packed in barges to send to his in-laws in the Mississippi delta. One problem: whatever he spent so much time and energy digging up was NOT copper ore. Oops! LeSueur returned with his “ore” first to Louisiana and then to France, but instead of being punished for the most colossal blunder in American history, he was rewarded with leadership of ALABAMA (in my best Forrest Gump voice).

So in 1838, Joseph Nicollet came through our school district twice to try to make sense of this strange legend. Did Baron Lahontan write copious historical notes in his book only to make a complete fable out of the chapter involving the land of the Gnacsitares and the fabled Blue Earth? Did LeSueur waste King Louis’ money and resources on misdiagnosed copper by one of France’s richest and powerful men, the alchemist L’Huillier? Well, Joseph Nicollet was an internationally respected scientist who was a whiz (or is that wizard, Harry) with astronomy, geology, barometry, math, and cartography. So when the U.S. government hired him to make a map of the upper Midwest, they hired the best. Yet leaking onto his map were strange details. Scientifically, there were no reasons to make three passes through Blue Earth county, yet he did. The results: he labeled thing according to legend rather than science. The Cannon River was labeled as the Lahontan River, the LaPrelle was relabeled as the LeSueur River because Nicollet believed he’d found the place where both men discovered the vitriol.

What about the Undine? Well, Nicollet ties all of these weird legends together with this fun little play on words involving water spirits and alchemy. Nicollet did find traces of the blue vitriol at Fort LeHillier (just across Highway 90/Highway 1 from Mount Kato), so he felt

confident he’d found the location described by his two embarrassing countrymen of his. For full disclosure, though, whether it was playfulness or validation, Nicollet’s use of Undine along with blue earth connects the dots for the alchemy legend. What was the legend? Well, alchemists like Nicholas Flamel, Christian Rosenkreutz, and Paracelsus believed the byproduct of the original Philosopher’s Stone (yes, Harry, she changed the name in America to Sorcerer) was...vitriol. There is even a legend about the word vitriol. Alchemists (who later became legit scientists) used a Latin acronym for v.i.t.r.i.o.l.: visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone. Huh? So was Nicollet punking us with his map, or was he serious?

Regardless, this ordinary school district has some fun lore, huh?

That brings us to the title itself: The Haunted Valley. Thomas Hughes (1854-1934) was a lawyer in Mankato for fifty-two years and also wrote several important historical books about the area (it was where I started in my own research). He gives a professional discussion of all of these historical names I’ve referenced, but in his second chapter of History of Blue Earth County, he gives an assortment of legends which he calls “Indian Legends of the Blue Earth.” Just like what I’ve done in this preface, he talks about what a nice place Blue Earth County is to live but then transitions into disturbing lore. First he explains that the Dakota had a region known as the Haunted Valley (beginning at the confluence of the Watonwan and Blue Earth River) which was forbidden to enter (unless you were trying to hide). Then he goes on to tell tales of murders, monsters, and tragedies that happened in this strange place (which we call home).

Since of the days of Thomas Hughes, Blue Earth County has seen floods and droughts, fires and blizzards, and tragedies and hardships. But it is also the Curling Capital of Southern Minnesota, a place to fish, a place to bike, canoe, and snowmobile. It’s as Heartland as Heartland gets. We have beautiful lakes, rivers, and campgrounds.

So...pretend you are sitting down beside a campfire and let the students (and staff) at Maple River High School tell you a few modern tales worthy of the heritage of The Haunted Valley.


About the Process

I’d first like to thank the administration at Maple River High School for bringing back Creative Writing as an elective for students.

I’d also like to thank the students and staff from the previous page for signing up. We sat down on the first day to a blank syllabus and I asked them, “So what do you want to do?” Ultimately, they decided to prioritize writing a short story during the Trimester.

During the Trimester, we had four authors who visited the students and taught everybody (including myself) lessons about the craft of writing: Kimberlee Bastian (whose love of writing fired them up), Becky Brooks (who taught an important lesson about writing what you love and know), Chris Wevik (whose gripping anecdotes and explanation of her novel made half my class write about haunted houses), and Melody Taylor (who was later described as the female version of Mr. Willis by the students).

After warming up by writing a Children’s Story, we went through some lessons on voice, showing/telling, dialogue, and description. Being a “Planner” instead of a “Pantser,” I walked them through six or seven stages of development (including rounds of peer revision) before I let them submit for grade. I revised and personally interviewed each student about their stories, allowing them to “opt- in” if they wanted to be part of the book. Becky Brooks told them that part of being a writer is knowing when to take advice from an editor and knowing when to stick to your guns. Some students made changes after the interview and others pretty much kept it the same.

When school ended, we made a Google folder to work collaboratively into the summer. I set aside a few weeks in July (and only that) to give it a final bit of polish before we let our work go to print. It takes a lot of courage for these students to present their budding talent to the world, so I hope you enjoy their tales.

Sincerely, Jason Lee Willis and Mr. Willis (July 9, 2018)


Inside Volume One

“A Place in the Stars” by Jason Lee Willis

“Fallen Leaves by Anna Martin

“The Witch’s Grave” by Hannah Beckel

“Jeremia’s Account of the Forest Devil” by Dylan Boeck

“Refuse to Lose” by Ryan Breiter

“Unktehi” by Jacob Doering

“Not Everyone Survives” by Caitie Hanson

“Lost” by Brittany Harms

“The Shadow Man” by Ashley Hawker

“On the Line” by Evan Klein

“Forgotten Souls” by Hannah Koehnen

“The Last Six Hours” by Sydney Peters

“Death Defining Terror” by Rachel Peterson

“The Wakantanka House’ by Rose Prosser

“The Curse of the Corn” by Hazel Schneiderhan

“May 26,2017” by Nicole Sorenson

“Jacob the Friendlyish Ghost” by Allison Sowers

“Last Trip to the River” by Connor Thorn

“221 Selder Circle” by Spencer Urban

“Lost” by Carly Utzka

“Escaping Time is Futile” by Ashley Ward 

About my Story

So yes, I did have a personal agenda with the publication of THV.  In my first series (The Seven Fires Chronicles), I struggled with containing my scope.  I wanted to include Blue Earth county along with Hiawatha County because I found all sorts of fun connections.  Ultimately, I decided to limit The Dream Catcher Chronicles just to the setting of Hiawatha County.  Although my Alchemist Chronicles series allows me to include historical Blue Earth County, I still felt limited.

So THV will allow me to include some random thoughts that I had with the series.  “A Place in the Stars” is a bit of a strange bridge between my books.  Currently, I am working on WELL OF SOULS in the Blood of Abel series, where I explain who made the “Philosopher’s Stone” and why it was made.  In THE FIRE HANDLER, Lily and family unearth it.  In my Joseph Nicollet book, he researches the mythology behind it.

“A Place in the Stars” is a stand alone story about a man, Abarron, hired by King Solomon to track down a legend involving something called a “shamir,” which Solomon wanted to use to build the temple.  To me, this weird legend connects the Templars, the Lamerika theory, and the Philosopher’s Stone.  It is also an “origin” story for the map described in my Nicollet book.