Haunts, History and Hidden Pasts

In 2011, Anna Lardinois ’02 headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her annual solo spring break road trip was a vital way to recharge her batteries while working with 17- to 20-year-olds on a program so they could complete their high school degree.

“I learned at Alverno,” she says, “that some people need more scaffolding than others.”

That year, Asheville, N.C., beckoned as the spot to prepare herself for the rest of the school year. Buoyed by her 40th birthday promise to do one new thing a week, she signed up for a ghost tour in the — reportedly — highly haunted mountain town. She swears she saw an apparition.

A vision becomes reality

Just like that, a vision of her own appeared. Bringing ghost tours to a history-rich city like Milwaukee would be that one new thing a week in honor of her birthday. The tours were the perfect opportunity to stitch together Lardinois’ favorite things: “researching, storytelling, history and fun.” Gothic Milwaukee was born before she could talk herself out of it.

As the city’s first walking ghost tour, the company promised its customers that they would be able to look beyond what they see every day, exploring “a world of hidden pasts and dark secrets, restless spirits and eerie sightings.” To debut the company, Lardinois partnered with Living Social and sold 800 tickets. She made her own costumes and website, received media coverage, and taught herself how to run her own company. She was enjoying her hobby business.

“Time passes, but the things we’re interested in remain the same,” says Lardinois, who majored in English and minored in secondary education at Alverno. “The interesting part of a ghost story is who it is about.”

Turns out, there are lots of interesting whos in Milwaukee. Does the angry spirit of Byron Kilbourn roam City Hall? That’s a stop on the tour where patrons listen to stories about his tenuous relationship with one of the city’s other founding fathers, Solomon Juneau. Another stop is the stately Pfister Hotel, legendarily haunted by hotel founder Charles Pfister — so much so that several professional athletes refuse to stay there when they’re in town.

Along the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, Lardinois recounts the tales of maritime disasters, including one of the lake’s most tragic, the Lady Elgin in 1860. Returning from a trip to Chicago filled with a gregarious group of intoxicated revelers, the steamer ship collided with a schooner and sunk only a few feet off shore, where it still rests today.

Some scaffolding of her own

After Lardinois’ initial success with ghost tours that run from spring through fall, she added a downtown Milwaukee tour of the city’s holiday lights, starting near Cathedral Square Park.

Still, she says, she wasn’t sure she wanted to invest all her time — and money — in a business she wasn’t confident was sustainable around her teaching career. Lardinois met with Joanna Patterson, director of Alverno’s Career & Professional Development Center, who challenged Lardinois to think big.

“She pushed me and really planted those seeds of taking the next step,” she says of Patterson.

What germinated was another product, another way to connect with the city she loves. Thanks to support from a mentor and an angel investor, Lardinois took a hiatus from her teaching career. Walking Milwaukee was born. The collection of cards she created features 10 self-guided walking tours of downtown, plus eight tour cards highlighting what Lardinois considers the city’s must-see architectural gems. Prompted by requests from fans, she set out to work on the Walking Milwaukee Tosa Edition. That tour covers one-sixth of a mile in Wauwatosa’s village center and debuted at the February 2016 opening of the town’s Whole Foods.

The walking tour cards can be purchased at 20 locations, including Milwaukee’s Outpost Natural Foods locations, the NEWaukee Night Market, West Elm in the Third Ward and Alverno’s A-Store.

“When composing the cards, I was often reminded of the lessons on the economy of language by Sister Georgine and the joy of grammar developed by Mimi Czarnik,” she says. “But what I’m most proud of is my placement at Alverno. Alverno is where my journey began.”

Lardinois most recently collaborated with the Milwaukee Art Museum on its After Dark: Steampunk event in late October, serving as a guide for the “Haunted Screens” exhibit. It’s no doubt a pinch-me moment for a woman who set out to be an urban educator and only wandered into the walking tour business by accident.

“People say I’m so inspiring, but I’m not,” she says. “I’m not brave. I’m just a woman who had boxes with stuff about history in her spare room. It’s determination, and I can thank Alverno for that.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2016 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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