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Dave Olson, Published October 30 2013

Will Willy walk tonight?

Editor's note: Story originally published Oct. 31, 1997


DALTON, Minn. - It's probably just your imagination.

But as you walk through the woods on a certain hillside in St. Olaf Township in Otter Tail County, little thorn trees will tug at your sleeve as if imploring you to stay a while.

You get the feeling they have a story to tell. Or maybe they're only trying to stop you.

The Halloween wind whispers a warning: Something bad happened here.

Somewhere close by, perhaps on the very spot you're standing, Lilly Field was murdered

The tale is told in gruesome detail in Fergus Falls newspaper articles of a hundred years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Lilly lived on a farm a few miles east of Dalton. On the morning of May 26, 1887, her mother and older brother, Charles, (her father committed suicide one year earlier) headed out for a trip to Fergus Falls.

Because roads were poor, the 30-mile round-trip by horse and wagon would take all day.

Left behind were Lilly, her 6-year old brother, Clark, and a hired hand, Nels Olson Holong.

Clark, according to a news account, was "a bright little fellow and what he knew he told at the time and on the witness stand at the time of the trial -- without contradictions."

At about 9 a.m., according to the article, "Holong, who had been at the barn attending to the chores, came into the house where Lilly was washing and asked her to make him some coffee. She told him to make it himself if he wanted it, as she had to do the washing. He then asked for a picture, which she refused to give him.

"At this juncture," the article said, "Holong told Clark to take a scoop-shovel, which they had borrowed of a neighbor several days before and carry it home, telling him to stop and play a little while."

Ominous absence

When the boy returned, he could not find his sister or Holong. The rest of the family returned from town around 11 p.m. They discovered Clark asleep on the sofa with a lamp burning nearby, but Lilly and Holong were nowhere to be found.

At sunrise, Charles checked about the farm and realized quickly that Holong had not fed the livestock or planted potatoes as he had been instructed to the previous day.

According to accounts of the time, Charles returned to the house "through a small pasture of eight or 10 acres, known as the hog lot, where they had some 30 hogs running at large.

"As the brother passed through them a most horrible sight met his gaze. There lay his missing sister not only dead, but horribly mutilated and partially eaten by the hogs."

Charles gathered up his sister and carried her into the house and then ran to a neighbor to raise the alarm.

Holong, the obvious suspect, was captured in Wendell, and held at the jail in Ashby where a lynch mob began to form.

Saved from vigilante justice he was transferred to Fergus Falls and stood trial.

Holong claimed on the stand that he killed the girl in self-defense when she attacked him with a butcher knife.

Defense counsel attempted to paint him as insane, according to a report from the time, but doctors "saw no evidence of insanity. They did not consider him of high intelligence, in fact less than ordinary intelligence, yet, nevertheless, competent to tell the difference between right and wrong."

His sister testified that as a young boy Holong had suffered a high fever and was also kicked in the head by a horse, which, she said, had dulled his thinking.

The jury wasn't moved. They deliberated for less than 15 minutes before finding Holong guilty.

He was sentenced to death and hanged.

Before his execution, Holong was asked by a newspaper to tell his story. He maintained that the killing was in self-defense and that the girl attacked him after she refused his request for coffee and chastised him for the death of some sheep.

Haunted hills

Locals say time has obscured the precise location of the farmhouse and hog pen, but the woody hill is generally accepted as the site of the murder.

It could be the loneliness of the area, or the way the land forms a tree-lined bowl with a small clearing in the center, but whatever the reason, it is a strangely quiet spot.

Even on a day when the wind howled mournfully through the tops of the trees, the woods seemed hushed.

"There are stories you can hear the pigs squealing late at night, or see a shadowy figure of a young girl in a white dress wandering the fields," says Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society and its museum in Fergus Falls.

Schuelke said one story is about a group of kids who held a seance at the site late one night. When they asked for a sign from the great beyond, so the story goes, the wind stopped and all animal sounds, crickets, birds, everything, went silent.

One long-time resident of the area said it's mostly kids from Fergus Falls who come out to spook themselves, but he said local kids, too, have been known to investigate the old Field farm.

Though he's known about the murder story for years, Herbert Risbrudt said he only recently learned that his aunt had been the same age as Lilly and had been invited by Lilly to stay overnight the day of the murder.

Risbrudt's cousin, Edna Knutson, who now lives in Ashby, said her mother told her the story many years ago and she remembers only some of it.

"(Lilly) was a neighbor girl and she came over to my mother's place the day she was murdered," Knutson said. "She wanted my mother to go with her home that night but Ma didn't want to."

Knutson said if her mother had accepted the invitation, one of two things could have happened. "Either they both would have been killed or (Lilly) would have been living."

Risbrudt said he's never seen Lilly's ghost, but added, "you kind of walk through there with a funny feeling. I don't know if I'd walk through there in the dark."

While local folklore has sprung up around the murder of the young farm girl, to date there has been no proof of supernatural goings on in Otter Tail County.

So, if tonight your car breaks down on a lonely rural road just a few miles east of Dalton, you needn't be afraid.

And if you glimpse a pale young woman standing in the woods, or the wind carries to your ears the squeal of hungry hogs, don't worry.

It's probably just your imagination.