After taking a hiatus in 2016, Vincent Mudgett has pulled on his mask, picked up his axe and trudged back to work at the Haunted Sawmill.
As of last summer, Vincent’s future looked uncertain. The LLC that owned the Haunted Sawmill building at Seventh and Hendricks streets in Merrill had decided to call it quits and the building was put up for sale.
“There was an incredibly committed core group of people who had been very involved in the Haunted Sawmill since its inception, and over five years, that was a lot of investment of time and energy and money,” said Jerry Hersil, one of the original LLC members. “I think people just naturally get to the point where they suffer some burnout. Unfortunately, since all of us had been working on it for the same amount of time, we all kind of suffered that at the same point.”
They had hoped to find a buyer who wanted to keep the building as a haunted attraction. The facility garnered some interest from potential buyers, but the owners weren’t going to sell to just anybody. The Haunted Sawmill event was initially created as a Boy Scout fundraiser. Since Boy Scout troops can’t own property, the LLC had to be created to purchase the former millwork factory building. Once the building was secured, the then-sponsoring Boy Scout unit used the space to actually put on the show itself.
“The Haunted Sawmill has always been a fundraiser for scouts in Merrill and we did not want to see any of that go away,” Hersil said. “Despite the burnout, I think it got some of us thinking that it’s a shame that this incredible fundraiser may not be around to help families pay for scouting.”
The Haunted Sawmill’s business is scaring people, and business had been good. The haunted house was gaining notoriety in its five years of existence, drawing over 8,000 visits in 2015. The Haunted Sawmill has been consistently ranked as one of the best in Wisconsin by various haunter websites.
The busiest night in 2015 drew 1,600 people. People came from Minneapolis, Green Bay, Madison and Chicago, as well as surrounding towns like Antigo, Wausau, Medford and Tomahawk.
“When those people come into Merrill, they spend money in town, they go to the gas stations and go to the restaurants,” Hersil said. “Not only that, but we’re getting word out that there’s this great attraction in Merrill, so it promotes Merrill too.”
After the Haunted Sawmill lay dormant during the 2016 Halloween season, some of the original LLC members came back together to reconsider the future of their haunt. Stepping back from the Sawmill for a bit, it seemed, had rekindled their passion for creating scary stuff.
The public had responded with a “tremendous amount of disappointment,” Hersil noted, when word spread that the Sawmill would not open in 2016.
During the latter part of 2016, a few of the original LLC members regrouped and were joined by new members interested in stepping up to help keep the project in place as a fundraiser for scouts.
“We have put together a new group of people who have come in and helped keep the LLC going that owns the building,” Hersil said. “There have been a lot of people that have expressed interest in keeping the Sawmill running and they didn’t want to see it fold, so they stepped forward. We have people that don’t even have children in scouting but they wanted to be part of something that is so great for Merrill.”
LLC members don’t benefit financially from the Haunted Sawmill, Hersil said. Rent paid by the sponsoring Scout units helps to cover the costs, taxes and utilities for the building, he added.
“Everybody in the LLC does it because they’re altruistic,” Hersil said. “Nobody in the LLC makes any money off of this. We invest money into it and quite honestly it’s a liability for all of us. I don’t want there to be this misconception that the LLC members are making money off of this, because we don’t. Everything is set up for the betterment of the Boy Scouts and 100 percent of the money ends up going to the scouts that work there.”
The machinery of the Haunted Sawmill is creaking back to life and will be in full motion this fall, Hersil promises.
“Come spring time when the weather warms up, we’ll be there working and getting things ready for this year,” he said.
In keeping with the Sawmill’s original mission, Cub Scout Pack 502 of Merrill has signed on as the sponsoring unit this year. Scouts from any other units that want to help out are also welcome.
Hersil is excited about the energy and enthusiasm among the reformed LLC and the volunteers that are coming forward to help put on the event through scouting.
“With the new people that are coming in there is a new level of excitement,” he said. “Some of the ideas that are being thrown around are absolutely crazy, and crazy is good for the Haunted Sawmill. I think the shows this year are going to be really exciting. I know that the Haunted Sawmill Committee wants to make things even more scary than they’ve been in the past.”
As word has leaked out about Vincent’s return, the public response has been positive.
“Vincent Mudgett, our main character, is still out there on Facebook and he’s got quite a long friend list,” Hersil said. “From the conversations I’ve had with people, nobody’s forgotten about it. They’re very excited to see it back.”
To make up for the lost year, a summer show will be added to coincide with Merrill’s Crazy Daze and the following weekend. The theme will be centering around the “The 6th Annual Haunted Sawmill – the Lost Year” and “Where’s Vincent?”
“We are going to have some kind of scavenger hunt to promote the summer show,” Hersil teased.
Show dates for the fall aren’t nailed down yet, but tentatively will be starting the weekend of Oct. 13 and 14 and running every weekend through Halloween. The fall theme will be the “7th Annual Haunted Sawmill – Vincent Resurrected.”
In 2015, the Haunted Sawmill upped the scare factor with a lights-out night. Those types of ideas will return in 2017, Hersil promises.
“I think it is going to be really exciting this year,” he said. “There are a lot of things people are going to want to come and check out, things we’ve never done before.”
The Haunted Sawmill will continue to support local causes such as the food pantry, and expand to benefit additional organizations. By offering discounted prices for families that bring canned food items, the Sawmill has been able to donate thousands of non-perishable food items each year to the local pantries.
“We’re going to continue to reach out to these groups and see if they want to be part of what we’re doing,” Hersil said. “Over the years it’s grown and become something bigger than I think most people ever anticipated. But I love the fact that we can help scouting, promote something exciting in Merrill, and help out other good causes at the same time.”
Hersil said he’s thankful for all those who put time and effort into the Sawmill over the years.
“If we did not have those people from the very start, this never would have happened,” he said. “From the people who first got together to form the LLC, to the scouting organizations, to the scout families, the scouts themselves and all of our incredible volunteers, it is truly a group effor
t. This is definitely an operation that requires multiple people. Everyone that has been involved in this project has done so to help making scouting better and to create a lasting legacy for Merrill.”