The Ghosts of Ole Bull

Kettle Creek Valley. Postcard a part of the author’s personal collection

A recent journey took me northward, into the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania to explore one of my favorite parts of the state. The goal of the day’s journey was the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum and I was joined on this trip by two classmates, Lindsey and Evie. My traveling companions for the day did not realize the moment they climbed into the vehicle that we would be not just be visiting the Lumber Museum, but would also be exploring the wilds of the Black Forest region.

We entered Ole Bull State Park and crossed the dam to a monument that stands on the western bank of Kettle Creek. The simple monument is topped with an outline of Ole Borneman Bull’s head. On past visits both the American and Norwegian flags were flown at the spot, but on this day neither flag was up.

As I told my traveling companions about Ole Borneman Bull, my mind drifted back to previous journeys to the remote park. Located in southern Potter County along Route 144, between the communities of Oleana and Cross Fork, Ole Bull State Park has become a favorite resting place during explorations of the Black Forest region.

Although I had been past the park numerous times, it was after a conversation with a friend that caused me to stop one summer afternoon. The two of us had been talking about legends and lore when he asked if I was familiar with the ghost of Ole Bull. While I had known about Ole Bull – both the man and the state park – I had not known about the haunting of the park. “It’s a simple ghost story. Legend states that when the wind blows, if you’re in the area of Ole Bull’s castle, you can hear him mournfully playing his violin.”

Though it is not the spookiest ghost story I’ve encountered, it was enough to make me stop numerous times when traveling through the area. The hike up to the remnants of Ole Bull’s castle has been a favorite of mine as I enjoy the nature of the valley and listening for the sound of phantom violin music drifting through the trees.

Despite my best efforts, I have yet to hear the sound of ghostly violin music.

Born on February 5, 1810, in Bergen, Norway, Ole Borneman Bull, was a world famous Norwegian violinist.  He began playing at the age of five and at the age of nine he made his debut performance. He created his own style of playing the violin by mixing the classic style of the Bergen Harmonic Society with the traditional fiddling style of the local community. His playing soon had him touring the world.

In 1852, on his second tour of America, Ole Bull decided that he wanted to set up a colony for his fellow Norwegians. He selected the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania for his Norwegian colony. The reason he selected the Kettle Creek Valley was because it reminded him of his homeland.

In early September 1852, Ole Bull arrived in Coudersport having bought 11,144 acres of land in southern Potter County from John Cowan of Williamsport. On September 17 of that year, a second group of settlers, one hundred and five this time, arrived in Coudersport and joined Ole Bull. The combined group started southward into the Kettle Creek Valley. They would settle in the area of the current state park and this is the location where he would set up his “castle,” Nordjenskald. Note: The exact number of Norwegians who planned on settling in the Kettle Creek Valley has been debated. The number of colonists range from three to eight hundred people.

The settlers would create four towns within the Kettle Creek Valley. The northernmost of these towns was New Bergen, which was located at present-day Carter Camp, at the northern junction of Routes 44 and 144. The next community going southward was Oleana. This community still exists north of Ole Bull State Park, at the southern junction of Routes 44 and 144. About one mile south of Oleana was the community of New Norway, which no longer exists. The final community set up by Ole Bull was Vahalla. This community was located within present-day Ole Bull State Park at the spot where he planned on building his castle.

By January 1853, the settlers had erected a steam sawmill and two water mills in the valley, along with a school built at New Norway.

It was not until May 1853 that it was discovered that much of the land that had been improved upon did not belong to Ole Bull. It has been debated by many historians whether Old Bull misunderstood his purchase or was misled about it, but the colony which was supposed to be 120,000 acres, was much smaller than he had thought. The colonies of New Bergen and New Norway, both on prime fertile ground compared to the rest of the valley, were not included in the purchase. The money and time developing them was a wasted effort.

The settlers were forced to move from the lands they had cultivated onto lands they were not able to farm. On September 22, 1853, all of the lands bought by Ole Bull were sold back to John Cowan for the same price it had been purchased for. Ole Bull’s friends would later claim that Ole Bull lost seventy thousand dollars in the venture. Before winter arrived, the majority of the Norwegian settlers moved westward to Minnesota and Wisconsin, though some did remain within the valley. Note: The exact amount Ole Bull lost in the venture to settle the Kettle Creek Valley is not known. Most estimates place the loss at $70,000. Estimates have ranged as low as $40,000 to – according to his closest friends – upwards of $120,000.

Ole Bull would return to his home country in 1859. He would continue to tour the world and despite his failure to settle the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania, his popularity never faded. He would die in 1880 on the Isle of Lyso.

The state purchased the lands that would become Ole Bull State Park in the early 1920s and in 1925 the park was opened as a half-acre picnic area for travelers. The park, as it is known presently, was developed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built the original dam to create a swimming area and park facilities with pavilions.

In 2002, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Norwegian colony, a monument was erected to honor Ole Bull. The monument was presented by Norway in memory of Ole Bull’s talent and patriotism. Another marker that memorializes Ole Bull’s Colony, the familiar blue Pennsylvania Historical Marker, stands along Route 44 at Cherry Springs State Park.

We left Ole Bull State Park and continued our northward journey, leaving the quietness of the park behind us.

Note: I want to thank Lindsey and Evie for allowing me to join them for a trip through the Black Forest region and their patience for listening to my stories of regional history. Thank you again.

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