A strange white mass passes through a solid wall, floats over the clothing racks toward a local merchant, then turns in an upward angle and slides through the ceiling. Gone as quickly as it appears, this weird misty phenomenon has been captured not once, but twice by Dollar General security cameras.
The department store, located at 16 East Main Street in Lock Haven, has been the scene of other bizarre some would say ghostly episodes over at least the last year, say Dollar General employees.
"It's a white cloud that comes across the floor, up the clothing rack, and goes straight across and up a column into the roof," lead sales associate Trudy Crawford said of the store's white, misty visitor. "There's nobody around, nothing else around it. It's there and gone in not even a minute's time."
Crawford emphasizes that the white mass cannot be explained away by the presence of heating or air conditioning vents or cigarette smoke. There are no vents in the area where the phenomenon occurs and no smoking is allowed in the store.
"To us it's all a mystery," she says, "but there have been a lot of things happening in the store."
A lot of things like phantom taps on employees' shoulders, voices coming out of the thin air, motion sensor cameras that are activated when no one is nearby, and baby dolls that talk seemingly of their own volition.
But it is the white mass that really has the store buzzing. It's one of those rare local occurrences, it seems, that something reputedly supernatural has been visually captured by modern technology.
"I was watching people on the security camera and I saw this little wave come up," said Courtney Kurtz, assistant manager. "It was like a little cloud. And I saw it twice on there. It was back by the same spot where that thing happened to Tracy."
What happened to Tracy "back there," at the rear of the retail operation, among the shelves lined with laundry detergent and paper plates, was perhaps the first incident that truly unnerved local Dollar General employees.
Store manager Tracy Miller was doing a "reset" with her then-assistant manager meaning they were straightening out the shelves, pulling merchandise forward and making sure items were facing the proper direction when it happened.
"It was probably in September or October of last year," begins Miller. "I felt this hand on my shoulder and I thought my son was behind me because somebody whispered 'Mom' in my ear. I turned around and there was nobody there."
The assistant manager turned and saw the startled expression on Miller's face, and knew, Miller said, that something weird had happened. Thinking that perhaps her son was pulling a prank, Miller and the assistant manager checked to see if Miller's son might be hiding somewhere nearby. But the store was devoid of customers, and a quick phone call proved her son was still at work.
On another occasion, Miller was monitoring activity at the front of the store via the security cameras in the rear employee offices, when she noticed two older women at the check-out area were acting somewhat peculiarly, as was a store employee.
"By the time I got to the front of the store the two ladies had left," she said, but when she inquired about the strange customer-employee behavior, she was informed that one of the elderly women had told the cashier she had wanted to speak to a manager. A voice from directly behind her asked, "What's wrong?" and the woman turned and said, "Nothing's wrong. I just want to tell you how lovely the store looks"
But there was nobody behind her. All three women apparently had heard the phantom "What's wrong?" comment as clear as day.
Sometimes employees arrive first thing in the morning to find items turned around backwards on the shelves, or sitting on the floor, despite having been properly shelved the night before.
And then there's that talking doll.
"We have the holiday stuff out now, and we have this doll, and she giggles and she gurgles and she makes noises, and she's motion-sensor activated," said Miller. "And sometimes she just goes off when nobody is there, when the nearest person is three aisles away. That happens a lot at closing, at night. It's creepy."
The creepy goings on at Dollar General have the staff baffled. They assume the incidents are connected to previous uses of the building, particularly the many years when an F.W. Woolworth department store was located here.
F.W. Woolworth (at various times in its history also known simply as "Woolworth's" and "Woolco") was a sprawling five-and-dime department store chain, founded in 1878, that thrived throughout most of the 20th Century. It became one of the largest retailers in the world before it went into a rapid decline in the 1980s and 90s, the result of increased competition with other emerging retail giants like K-Mart and Walmart.
Its glory days were the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth dime store fortune, made huge headlines across the globe as a kind of Paris Hilton of her day. She threw lavish parties, married gigolos and matinee idols and stockpiled precious jewels the way some youngsters collect baseball cards.
As the chain expanded, it became an iconic presence on Main Streets across the country. Hit songs like 1928's "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," immortalized the department store with the lyrics, "Diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell, baby."
Woolworth's first arrived in Lock Haven almost 100 years ago: Before the dawn of the Jazz Age, customers were already flocking to its downtown location. But it was in 1922, when the merchant relocated to 8 East Main Street (now known as 16 E. Main), that Woolworth's became an anchor store in the city. It soon became a downtown mainstay, and remained one for nearly 70 years, long outlasting other Main Street perennials like J.C. Penney, W.T. Grant and J.J. Newberry.
"The employees and managers of the local branch of the Woolworth stores are busily engaged in moving the stock now housed at the old building to the new home of the store on the corner of East Main Street and Flack's alley, which is rapidly nearing completion," the Clinton County Times reported on Sept. 15, 1922.
That move was completed by Sept. 29, when the Times reported, "The formal opening of the new Woolworth store in the recently erected Scott building, on East Main Street, drew large crowds from every section of the city to inspect the building The building is one of the most up-to-date in the city. The salesroom is large and a commodious storeroom is located in the rear and on the same floor, adding much to the convenience of the new building. Attractive and well-fitted rest rooms and lavatories are also part of the equipment. The merchandise display is as varied and complete as the stock of the Woolworth stores in any of the large cities."
The building itself was named for lumberman Simon Scott, who with business partner S.G. Wright purchased the property upon which Dollar General now stands in 1856. When Scott died in 1891, the property fell into the hands of his two sons, Jacob and Louis, both of whom had daughters who married into the Kunkel, Drorbaugh, Blanchard and Furst families.
Nearly 120 years after Simon Scott purchased the land upon which Dollar General now stands, five of his descendants still owned that lucrative spot, leasing the property for much of that duration to the F.W. Woolworth company.
Managers of Lock Haven's Woolworth store came and went almost constantly during the property's long duration there. As with many large retailers today, successful managers were on a constant rotation, so every few years they'd be assigned to other Woolworth stores in various far-flung locales. As a result, few of these individuals remained in town long enough to leave much of an impression.
Little is known, for example, about W.H. Kinkaid, who managed the Woolworth's in 1923, according to city directories; or L.W. Preston, who was manager in 1926-27; or R.M. Lotz, manager in the early 1930s.
Bellefonte native Malcolm P. "Mac" Clevenstine was the store manager in 1936, and held the same job in various other stores in the chain throughout Pennsylvania, according to his 1979 Express obituary.
Alton S. Hotaling arrived in Lock Haven after managing the Woolworth stores in Saranac Lake, N.Y., Mahanoy city, Northside Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He stayed on at the local department store for far longer than most, from 1942 to 1952. He then operated the Hotaling Tea Room at 120 Bellefonte Ave. for 20 years. He retired after the 1972 flood and died in 1987.
And then there was Ray Stonesifer, who managed the store in the late 1950s and early '60s, before moving on to manage a Woolworth's in Pittsburgh. He was described in his Express obituary as a "popular resident of Lock Haven during the years he managed the local store," when he and his family lived in Dunnstown and he belonged to the Clinton County Shrine Club.
In 1967, Stonesifer was traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when he suddenly dropped dead and slumped over his car's steering wheel. His wife, Ann, who was in the passenger seat, quickly took control of the steering, but could not prevent the car from rear-ending a tractor trailer truck. She and a daughter survived him.
Though many of the Woolworth's store managers have long since moved on or died, several former employees remain in the area. Peggy Grieb, who worked in the store's front office from 1964 to 1985, said she had a terrific time working at the retailer.
"I still miss the store tremendously," she said during a telephone interview Thursday. "They always put the customer first, that was one of our rules. I can't think of any customers or employees I didn't like. I got along well with all of them."
She fondly recalled the warm relationships she had with the other "girls" who worked there, and the nights they'd go bowling together after work.
"It was just fun," she said.
One of Grieb's co-workers was Rosemary Peters, who worked at the Woolworth's lunch counter from about 1977 until the store's closing at the end of the 1980s. Peters remembered the many Halloweens that store employees would come to work dressed in costume, and as a result garner coverage in the local newspapers.
"We made the front page of The Express many times," she said with a laugh.
"All of the older coffee club guys used to come in in the morning," she added. "They were really fun."
Told that current Dollar General employees believe the store to be haunted, Peters was not terribly surprised. She said that sometime around 1983 or '84, a fatality occurred at the store.
"A woman died at the lunch counter," she said. "Carol Niehart had to clean up after her. We used to tease Carol that she was to blame, because she had served her that day."
Peters was still working at Woolworth's on the last day of its operation, in 1989. For a while after that the vacant store was used for flea markets and auctions, but in 1995 local developer Steve Poorman purchased the property and promised it would become home to "a national franchise" as soon as renovations were completed.
"While the Woolworth building structure is good," Poorman told The Express, "the roof and wooden floors are destroyed because of a lack of maintenance and heat."
He replaced the roof, filled the basement with stone and had a new concrete floor installed, all at an estimated cost of $261,000. Poorman retained ownership of the building through May of this year, according to the county assessor's office. It is now owned by Centre City Building LLC.
As for the Woolworth's national chain, the last remaining stores were closed for good in 1997, though the era of the old five-and-ten cent department stores remains vivid in the minds of those old enough to remember it. One of them is Peters.
"It was 100 years old, Woolworth's was." she said. "It OUGHT to be haunted."
Matt Connor can be reached at email@example.com. Two of the original "Peek at the Past" books are available for purchase at Ross Library.