The Many Hauntings of Walter Schroeder
From the haunted Retlaw in Fond du Lac to the Milwaukee Hilton, the ghost of hotel magnate Walter Schroeder has been keeping busy from beyond the grave.
When it comes to spectral hoteliers in Wisconsin, Charles Pfister gets all the fame and glory. He died in 1927 and went right back to work at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee where he’s been haunting celebrity guests for years. An ever increasing number of major league baseball players, as well as the occasional actor or musician, have had unsettling encounters with Charles while staying at “baseball’s haunted hotel.”
But there is another Wisconsin hotel magnate who still lingers around his properties long after his death. And while he may not have as much postmortem notoriety, it would seem that Walter Schroeder has had a considerably more ambitious afterlife.
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Who was Walter Schroeder?
Born in 1878 to German immigrants, Schroeder learned hard work and responsibility at his father’s meat market in the Third Ward. At the end of eighth grade, when Walter was just 14 years old, he began working as a clerk in the Office of the Milwaukee Register of Deeds. There he learned the ins and outs of the real estate business, which became useful later when he started opening hotels in the 1920s.
Walter soon got another job as a member of the Milwaukee Daily Reporter staff. After a couple years there, he made an offer to buy the company. The owner fired him on the spot. So Walter started his own paper, the Milwaukee Daily Abstractor, took most of the Reporter’s subscribers, and made the owner a new offer he couldn’t afford to refuse.
Walter’s father moved on from the meat market to insurance. When Walter was 21 he joined his father in that endeavor, and Chris. Schroeder & Son Co. became the largest general insurance company in the state. When Walter was just 24, his name was included in the 1902 book Notable Men of Wisconsin.
In 1912, the company had the opportunity to provide financing for the brand new Wisconsin Hotel. It was the biggest hotel in the state, but Walter realized they lacked competent management. He took over the duties himself, which eventually led to him developing a chain of fine hotels across Wisconsin, as well as one in Duluth and two in Michigan.
Walter’s crowning achievement was the completion of the Hotel Schroeder (now the Hilton) on the corner of 5th and Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee. The extravagant 25-story Art Deco wonder was the finest hotel in the city.
Throughout his life, Walter was known for being a generous contributor to a wide variety of charitable organizations. When he died on July 18, 1967, he left a $20 million estate to be distributed throughout Milwaukee County charities. The Walter Schroeder Foundation provided funding for a library at MSOE, an Olympic-sized aquatic center for the Metro Milwaukee YMCA, and much more.
Walter’s earthly remains rest at Forest Home Cemetery, but it seems his spirit has been keeping busy all these years at not just one, but several of his former properties. He even gets around to places that simply bear his name due to contributions from the foundation.
Walter’s Favorite Haunts
If you’re hoping for an encounter with Wisconsin’s most prolific spirit prankster, here’s where to look:
Hotel Retlaw – Fond du Lac
Hotel Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards) in Fond du Lac was one of the finest hotels in the state when Schroeder opened it in 1923. It had 8 floors, 256 guestrooms, and the second longest cigar case in the state. Underground tunnels connected the hotel to two speakeasy operations across the street. The “roaring 20s” wouldn’t have been roaring without bootlegged booze. It was Prohibition, after all, and the basements, barns – even a faux cheese factory – were so full of moonshine that Fond du Lac earned a reputation as “Little Chicago.”
Chicago gangster Al Capone himself was said to do business there, as well as notorious bank robber John Dillinger. If those stories are true, two of history’s most notorious criminals may have stepped foot in Schroeder’s fine establishment from time to time.
If Schroeder was involved in the illegal gaming and spirits his guests were connected to through those secret tunnels, those stories are eclipsed by his philanthropic deeds. But his connection to the hotel itself has not been as easily forgotten.
Local legend says Schroeder was murdered in that hotel. Some employees over the years had strange experiences, most while it was a Ramada in the 90s and 2000s when the old building was showing its age, that led them to believe he still lingered there. When a few dollars once went missing from till, or supplies were seemingly pushed from a housecleaning cart, when lights flickered, or when televisions mysteriously changed channels (usually to C-SPAN) they blamed it on Walter, the prankster from beyond the grave.
In a 2005 episode of the radio show This American Life, Starlee Kine stayed at the hotel and interviewed the staff for a segment called “Where’s Walter?”
“The computer, it beeps. It just beeps all the time and then I just tell it to shut up because I think it’s Walter,” an employee named Becky said. “I think he took a picture of me one time, me and another girl I was working with. We saw just a flash from the balcony. We didn’t know what happened.”
“What would Walter want to do with a picture of you?” Starlee asked.
“I don’t know,” Becky said. “I just tell him to go away because he bugs me.”
A particularly harrowing incident occurred when a guest called the front desk to report screams for help coming from Room 717. No one had been booked in that room. The maintenance man hurried up to the seventh floor. He found the door shaking as someone was kicking and pounding hard against it from the inside. The door was locked, and his key wasn’t working.
Then everything abruptly stopped.
He tried the doorknob, and it turned freely this time to let him into the room.
There was no one inside. He checked the closet, the bathroom. The room was empty. Even more astonishing to him was the absence of scuff marks or indentations on the door from the abuse it had just taken.
“As far as types of ghosts go, Walter’s more of the annoying variety than the scary,” Starlee says. “His lot in the afterlife is to get blamed whenever anything goes wrong. He’s basically a scape ghost.”
The hotel kept a log at the front desk, at least during its Ramada days, of every glass Walter broke, every light he turned on, every door he rattled. A change of ownership and recent updates restored the Hotel Retlaw to its former glory, though, and if Walter is still wandering the halls, pranking guests and staff, no one seems to be talking about it.
Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center – Brown Deer
In life, Walter believed in helping young people and frequently made large donations to organizations for that purpose. That’s why the Walter Schroeder Foundation donated $4 million for the construction of the aquatic center at the YMCA in Brown Deer, plus an additional $500,000 for pool maintenance. At the time, it was the largest single donation to any YMCA ever. When the facility opened in 1979, it was the only Olympic-size pool in the state.
Walter died in 1967, though, so he certainly never stepped foot in the aquatic center in life. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t hanging around.
“There’s a guy who actually quit because he was freaked out,” a worker at the aquatic center told Starlee Kine when she was investigating Walter’s sordid afterlife. “It’s like an ongoing scary thing with the camp kids too.”
Schroeder Hall – Marquette University
Walter was a benefactor of Marquette University and served on the Board of Governors for seven years. The 10-story residence hall named after him opened in 1957 and houses 660 students. There is no reason to believe it’s Walter himself wandering the south wing of the ninth floor, but an unnamed something was definitely causing problems there when the students were gone.
RAs experienced doors locking or unlocking, keys intermittently not working in the locks. They heard doors rattle when no one was near them. Upon entering the room, they would find no open windows, no breeze to cause the doors to shake.
Furniture and personal possessions were often moved. The ninth floor ghost even smashed one RA’s Christmas lights. Lights would be found turned on inside empty, locked rooms. Objects went missing. A roll of tape vanished from a locked room, only to be found hidden in the ceiling tiles of another room the following year.
Numerous occurrences like this happened, often involving rooms 925, 913, and, primarily, 906 where the tape had been found.
After the ghost opened a bathroom stall door, one RA returned to his ninth floor to get his rosary from his locked room. He found the door unlocked, and his rosary was lying on the floor in the middle of the room. When he reached down for it, the Schroeder Hall ghost broke his ankle.
“I felt a pressure on the right side of my foot and my ankle broke,” the RA said. “As I was reaching for my rosary, I felt something from the right side of my foot, push it in, and my ankle broke … I honestly felt a hostile force break my ankle.”
After that, the RAs called in a Jesuit priest to bless the three problem rooms.
They experienced no further incidents after that.
Walter Schroeder Lounge – Milwaukee
Walter was a member of the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center for 30 years. After his passing, they honored his memory by naming a lounge after him. And part of Walter, some believed, still remained in that lounge. After hours, he could be heard tickling the ivories on the baby grand.
The building was constructed as a church in 1889, and became the Masonic Center in 1912. It was sold in 2017 to a group with plans to convert it into a 220-room, 14-story hotel with the Masonic Center serving as the lobby, restaurant and meeting rooms. When the pandemic stifled the hotel industry in 2020, however, plans shifted to building apartments, instead.
The project has been complicated by 20 stained glass windows left behind by the Freemasons that no one seems interested in, but are protected by the building’s historic status. The windows include references to the Bible, quotes by Scottish Rite masons, and even an American president. Or maybe not.
“They really are extremely esoteric,” Tim Askin of the Historic Preservation Commission said of the windows. “The quote under George Washington here, he didn’t say that, and as far as Google says, no one else did either.”
Whatever eventually becomes of the building, will Walter still be hanging around?
Retlaw Theater – Fond du Lac
Just down the street from the Retlaw Hotel in Fond du Lac is another relic from Walter’s empire. The ornate Retlaw Theater was built to showcase both movies and vaudeville performances, with an organ and dressing rooms to support the acts. Elaborate chandeliers dangled from the ceilings. Rich brocade patterns adorned the walls. Every fixture was made of solid bronze. The walls of the auditorium were covered in massive murals of Italian lakes hand painted by artist Louis Grell from photos from his travels in Italy in 1912.
As with many of Walter’s properties, the Retlaw was considered the finest in Wisconsin when it opened in 1925. The other similarity it shares is that strange things happened around the theater, and the phenomena was blamed on Walter’s ghost.
Doors opening and closing, empty theater seats creaking, disembodied footsteps, and clapping sounds were all common occurrences at the Retlaw Theater. People even encountered ghostly figures in the basement.
Most of the theater was demolished in 2014 and converted into apartments and office space. Only the original Art Deco façade and foyer remains. Is the spirit of Walter Schroeder still lingering in the shadow of his once grand theater?
Before a recent website update, Historic Hotels of America had this to say about the towering Milwaukee Hilton:
“Although Walter Schroeder lived a life of generosity, charitable giving, and general kindness, a mystery remains. While the Hilton Milwaukee City Center remains ghost free, stories of Schroeder’s ghost haunting other buildings in the Milwaukee area remain abundant.”
However, a Trip Advisor review titled “Great Staff, but Haunted” had this to say about a December 2019 stay at the Hilton with her mother:
“The classic, yet updated feel of the place hadn’t put me off, it was the energy. You could be the only one in the hallway and never feel alone.”
The reviewer described feeling anxious when her mother had gone downstairs to the lobby, leaving her alone in the room. She was unsettled by laptop glitches that caused music to randomly turn on and off, or switch songs for no reason. There was a constant feeling of “something else being there.”
Her mom decided to speak up.
“She took the liberty of telling whatever was there to leave the room,” the reviewer wrote, “and her Siri went off on the other side of the room. It said ‘Well that’s not very nice.’”
They immediately went down to the front desk and asked for a different room.
In the new room the following day, Mom witnessed drawers opening and closing by themselves, the bathroom light switching on and off by itself, and objects somehow getting moved around the room.
“Totally creepy, but to no fault of the Staff or establishment. The building has history, it’s beautiful, and is a great overall stay. I don’t think any of the spirits there were mean, I’m sure they were once guests there too.”
The Hotel Schroeder, as the Milwaukee Hilton was originally called, opened in 1928. The Art Deco masterpiece was the crown jewel of Walter’s chain, and happened to be the largest hotel in Wisconsin at the time.
According to the Trip Advisor review, the Hilton staff is unaware of, or at least doesn’t disclose, any paranormal activity happening in the hotel. And if there is, there’s no reason to assume it’s Walter. But given his postmortem reputation in these other locations, it may just be Walter up to his old tricks.
Have you had an encounter with Walter? Tell us about it in the comments below.