LAKE CITY, Minn. — Is having a monster in the neighborhood good for business?
A couple of small towns in the region are hoping so, thanks in part to a Twin Cities author and paranormal researcher. Chad Lewis makes a living writing guidebooks such as “The Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations” and “The Minnesota Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures.”
In 2013, the Minneapolis man co-wrote a book about the “Van Meter Visitor,” a giant half-man, half-animal creature with batlike wings, a glowing horn, three-toed feet and bad body odor that supposedly emerged from an abandoned mine and terrorized the small town of Van Meter, Iowa, for several days in the fall of 1903.
Renewed interest in the bizarre old tale led to Lewis helping Van Meter organize a “Visitor Day’s Festival,” including a monster-hunt walking tour.
“It was successful for us,” said Van Meter resident Rachel Backstrom, who was on the monster festival planning committee. The town of about 1,000 people drew about 300 visitors to the second annual event in September, Backstrom said.
“We pretty much sold out our T-shirts,” she said.
Now, Lewis is doing something similar for Lake Pepin, south of the Twin Cities. He and co-author Noah Voss recently published “Pepie: The Lake Monster of the Mississippi River,” about a creature supposedly lurking in the waters of Lake Pepin.
On Sunday, they’re helping Lake City, Minn., put on Pepie Fest, “the world’s largest lake monster hunt and festival,” according to Lewis.
“There’s not a lot of lake monster festivals around the world,” Lewis admitted.
$50,000 reward makes waves
Tales of a sea serpent swimming in Lake Pepin supposedly reach back to native Dakota people and early pioneers and explorers. For example, a “Book of Days Almanac” published by the Minnesota Historical Society reports that a strange creature was seen swimming in the lake on April 28, 1871.
But local residents didn’t get around to monetizing the mysterious monster until the 21st century.
That began in 2008, when Lake City businessman Larry Nielson, owner and captain of the “Pearl of the Lake,” a 125-passenger paddle-wheel excursion boat, decided to offer a $50,000 reward for evidence of the existence of Pepie.
According to Nielson’s website, pepie.net, the reward will be paid out if someone can produce a photograph or “samples of skin or fins that can be studied for a DNA analysis.”
The evidence has to be verified by University of Minnesota biologists “as a previously uncataloged creature living in Lake Pepin,” according to the website
Prospective hunters, however, are forbidden from harming Pepie, according to the site.
Nielson said the monster reward has help put Lake City on the map for something besides being the birthplace of water skiing.
“The Chinese government has contacted me,” he said. “I was interviewed by the largest radio station in Tokyo, Japan, for 20 minutes.”
‘I wasn’t alone,’ diver says
Nielson said Pepie publicity also has inspired recent television features and search expeditions.
“There’s been a couple of them taking it pretty seriously,” he said.
“I think there’s something to it,” said Heidi Freier, a western Wisconsin resident who describes herself as an amateur filmmaker and an armchair cryptozoologist.
Freier said she and a team of friends launched a Pepie hunt over Labor Day weekend in 2009, including underwater cameras, sonar equipment and a scuba diver.
Cory Breault, the diver, said during the search that the fish-finder sonar on his boat indicated a large object — 30 feet long and 6 feet wide — about 35 feet down.
He dived down to take a look.
Breault, 42, of Somerset, Wis., said he normally never dives in the Mississippi River because, “It’s scary, murky and there’s nothing to see.”
But under water that day, “It just felt I wasn’t alone.”
Breault said he caught a glimpse of something big swimming very close to him and then taking off. He said the turbulence spun him around under the water.
“It was bigger than me,” he said. “This was nothing like any fish I’ve ever seen.
“I shot to the surface, freaked out,” he said.
Alas, “We didn’t get it on camera,” Breault said.
But Freier said footage she shot of the hunt has been used in a Discovery Channel show. She said she hopes to complete a documentary film about the experience called “Loch Ness Monster of the Mississippi.”
Pepie mints for sale
Pepie promoters rarely fail to point out that Lake Pepin is similar in size to Scotland’s Loch Ness, another supposed lake-monster sanctuary, although Loch Ness is much deeper, more than 700 feet; Lake Pepin is only 60 to 70 feet deep.
But Nielson said many lake sailors today talk about “the wave,” a mysterious disturbance sometimes seen in the water.
More common, however, are summertime sightings of tourists posing in front of an “Official Pepie Watch Station” sign, Nielson said.
“We’ve had far, far more publicity than we’ve ever dreamed in our imagination,” said Nielson, who won an award from Explore Minnesota Tourism for marketing the monster.
“It was just a legend before,” said Andrea Hamilton, executive director of the Lake City Chamber of Commerce. Now, it’s tourism bait.
“Our retailers think it’s good,” she said.
Jil Garry, owner of the Treats and Treasures fudge and gift shop in Lake City, said she carries Pepie-licensed T-shirts, baby bibs, stuffed animals and Pepie mints.
“Not to be confused with peppermints,” Garry said.
“People requested coffee mugs, so we started doing coffee mugs,” she said.
You can also find a Pepie pizza in town and “I think someone has a Pepie burger that’s monster big,” Garry said.
Nielson said the idea of a festival started floating around the past couple of years, following the recent influx of monster hunters.
“They all said you ought to have a festival,” Nielson said.
Festival events are scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday in downtown Lake City, and will include face painting, live music, walking tours, boat cruises and lectures on the Pepie legend.
Lewis said he expects the festival will attract some serious monster hunters.
“There are going to be several people equipped with sonar, underwater cameras, fishing equipment, using themselves as bait, swimming around with it,” he said.
Nielson said, “My wife has always been a little concerned” that someday, he might have to pay up the $50,000 reward.
But he said that if a real monster is ever found in Lake Pepin, the publicity will be worth it.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.