Halloween is a time of year when people love to dwell on the supernatural, old tragedies and unsolved mysteries.
Some of the things which are almost certain to catch people’s attention and generate a fair bit of excitement are large abandoned old houses, particularly if people become convinced that those buildings are now haunted.
One such instance of an old abandoned house, which stood in the heart of downtown Red Deer for more than 20 years, was the old Elder house. It was located on the northeast corner of Ross Street and MacKenzie (49) Ave., a site which is now occupied by the old Red Deer Court House.
Dr. James W. Elder was born in Hagersville, Ontario in 1842.
He became a veterinarian and practiced in southwestern Ontario at Seaforth and Stratford. In 1864, he married Catherine Ross of Huron County. They were to have five children, but tragically, only one of those five children, their daughter Grace, lived into adulthood.
In 1901, Dr. Elder built a veterinary barn and office along MacKenzie (49) Ave. approximately where the alleyway between Ross and 51 St. is now located. In 1903, with his wife and daughter coming out to Red Deer to join him, he contracted to have a large two-storey frame house constructed along Ross Street, a bit to the south of his veterinary clinic.
Tragically, Dr. Elder passed away suddenly on June 8th, 1904. His daughter Grace had secured a job as a teacher at the Crossroads School, northwest of Red Deer. His widow Catherine consequently moved in with Grace.
On July 11th, 1905, Grace Elder married a prosperous local farmer, John Jost Gaetz, who owned a large farm on the East Hill of Red Deer. Her mother, Catherine, made her home with her daughter and son-in-law, as did Jack Gaetz’s mother, also named Catherine.
While the Gaetz’s were well-off, for unrecorded reasons, they did not finish the big house on Ross Street. Instead, it sat, partially completed, with all of the windows and doors boarded up.
Rows of spruce trees were planted on three sides of the house. As time went on, these spruce trees became a screen between the busy downtown streets and the weather-beaten house and overgrown yard.
In 1912, with a housing shortage in the booming community, the E.A. Chappell family moved into the kitchen portion of the old Elder house as that was one part of the building which was more or less complete. However, the accommodations were poor, and the family soon moved out.
As the years went by, the bleak old house took on a widespread reputation of being haunted. At Halloween time, daring teenagers would try to get into the building to look for ghosts and to scare their friends, and sometimes themselves.
In 1918, the Gaetz’s built a large brick house on 55 St. east of the Red Deer Cemetery. Nevertheless, the old Elder house was not demolished until the early 1920s.
Catherine Elder passed away in the East Hill home on May 14th, 1932 at the age of 86. Her son-in-law, Jack Gaetz, passed away suddenly on Christmas Eve, 1937.
In 1939, Grace Elder Gaetz sold the farm and big brick house to the Alberta government for an expansion of the Provincial Training School (now known as Michener Centre). The farmhouse became a residence for P.T.S. residents who were getting vocational training in farming.
The building was renamed Willow Villa.
In 1940, Grace Gaetz got remarried, but outlived her second husband, R.B. Welliver, as well. She passed away on Dec. 12th, 1953. As she had no children, she was the last surviving member of the Elder family.
In recent years, with the major downsizing the Michener Centre, Willow Villa was vacated. For a while, it was used by such community groups as the Red Deer Doll Club. However, for several years now, the large old house has sat, boarded up and vacant, with its future yet to be determined.
With its location near the Red Deer Cemetery, large groves of spruce trees, and the building’s loaming, boarded-up appearance, once again there are those who are sure that the old house is haunted.