© Special to the Register
A sketch, by Kevin Lee Nelson, based on century-old descriptions of the Van Meter Visitor.
Imagine what a smartphone in 1903 Van Meter could have accomplished.
Instead of shouldering shotguns and blasting away at an eight-foot winged creature with a forehead horn that cast a beam of light, panicked citizens could have quickly posted a YouTube video. Case closed. Monster confirmed.
Camping out all night 110 years later, at an old coal mine outside of town where the alleged creature is believed to have lived, a researcher of odd legends is still trying to get sight of it.
Chad Lewis survived the assignment. He was not abducted nor scooped up by a flying creature, but he has a good story to tell. In his wanderings of Van Meter, he unearthed a legend that was dying out with the old-timers, and tonight he will tell it at the old high school gym.
The story offers a glimpse of rural Iowa history and lore. The superstitious mindset at the turn of the last century, oddly, mirrors a resurgent 21st century trend of Bigfoot hunting and paranormal investigating that populate cable television today.
Lewis also has appeared on network and cable shows to discuss his monster/alien chasing across the globe, but the Minneapolis 38-year-old said he was particularly captivated by a creature he dubbed the "Van Meter Visitor." He purposely chose a non-threatening name. One shouldn't assume the winged creature did not come in peace.
THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS
: Over a series of nights in the fall of 1903, several respected and prominent men of Van Meter reported a half human, half animal with enormous, smooth bat wings flying about. It let off a powerful stench and scared the daylights out of them because it moved at speeds never seen before. And it shot a blinding light from its horned head.
Shots were fired each time, first by implement dealer U.G. Griffith as it flew across building tops. The monster shrugged them off like a minor nuisance. The next night the town doctor and bank cashier Peter Dunn separately saw the creature and opened fire. Dunn even took a plaster cast of the "great three-toed tracks."
The following night, O.V. White, reportedly a dead-eye with a gun, was awakened from his slumber in his quarters above the hardware store and shot at the creature that was perching atop a telephone pole. This awakened Sidney Gregg, who had been sleeping in his store nearby. Gregg said the monster hopped like a kangaroo. Even the local high school teacher saw it and deemed it some sort of antediluvian monster.
It seems there's never a decent pitchfork-and-torch gathering these days, but back then townsmen were not averse to taking up arms and forming a posse. So to the northwest side of Van Meter they charged, near the old brickyard where J.L. Platt Jr. heard a noise down by the abandoned coal mine.
"Presently the noise opened up again, as though Satan and a regiment of imps were coming forth for battle," according to an article in the Des Moines Daily News
on Oct. 3, 1903.
The monster appeared, joined by a smaller version. In a brilliant light they sailed away, only to return in the morning where the men had gathered "to rid the earth of them" with their firepower heard far and wide.
"The reception they received would have sunk the Spanish fleet, but aside from unearthly noise and peculiar odor they did not seem to mind it, but slowly descended the shaft of the old mine."
Never to be seen again.
LEWIS FOUND THE ARTICLE
and was struck by the fact that such prominent men would put their names to such a story. "These weren't town drunks," he said.
He came to Van Meter and with the help of local librarian Jolena Walker also found the legend had survived the generations in the town's centennial book. Old-timers remember it, she said, though their opinions of its authenticity vary.
"Those guys wouldn't have wanted that publicity," Walker said of eyewitness accounts.
Was the Van Meter Visitor real?
"It depends on your belief system. I know there is good and I know there is evil," she said. "I believe there is a God, so I believe there is a demon. I'm saying it was evil."
Walker even drove the gravel road out to the abandoned brick plant after her consultations with Lewis.
"I never want to go up there again, I tell you that," she said. "I tried to back up the car and I don't know if it was loose gravel, but I couldn't back up right away. I'm thinking 'What is going on? I'm getting out of here.' "
Lewis made the rounds in his research, finding strange stories in Van Meter, ghosts at the old high school and basement of the town bar and serpents in the river, none to his surprise. Intersecting geographical elements, he says, are said to have uncanny energy. The Raccoon River branches meet near the town.
"I still thought this would be fun but short," he said. "We would find out this is a hoax, no doubt in my mind."
He abandoned his career at a nonprofit to chase the paranormal, but his master's degree in psychology came in handy. He gives dozens of presentations each year and has written several books. The latest is "Van Meter Visitor," with co-authors Noah Voss and Kevin Lee Nelson. It launches today.
When he first started his presentations, people would approach him and privately tell their own stories of monsters or hauntings.
"Now people raise their hand and tell their story. It's more socially acceptable," Lewis said. "We really crave some new type of adventure. You can go to the same hotels and restaurants and you don't know what city you are in, so people are looking for that little adventure, that something different to seek out."
Yet strange creatures appear in local folklore throughout recorded history.
"There is a long history of belief in giants, particularly in North America," and among some Native American populations, said Zora Zimmerman, who has taught folklore classes at Iowa State University.
"A legend has a cycle, usually starting with very real eyewitness accounts that may be true but are unexplained, so the legend grows."
Lewis grew up near Eau Claire, Wis., where several UFO sightings bubbled up in the 1960s and 1970s.
"When I started I was just fascinated what makes people believe or not. Over the years it's changed a bit. Now I'm just as interested in the cause as the effect," he said. "After nearly 20 years, I am left with more questions than answers. Every time I have a theory or explanation, I'm back to zero."
In other words, he didn't dismiss the possibility.
LEWIS RAN THROUGH
the likely scenarios. A hoax was dismissed. What dressed-up prankster could survive the firepower?
A strange unknown creature could have emerged from the mines, but there was no proof of it. He's still hoping that plaster cast is in a Van Meter attic.
"It was an era when anything was possible. Science was starting to gain momentum. In fact, they had just discovered the mountain gorilla. So the beast in the jungle was real," he said. "People were open to the fact that anything could happen."
He found little more than the legend. But in visiting the mine location, he also found unease.
John Jungman is a farmer who owns the pasture where the coal mine is covered up. He took Lewis out to examine it. He told Lewis he always had a funny feeling about the place, but his son, John, laughed it off.
"We called it the brickyard monster," he said. "He's making it sensational. It's a fun legend and all that, fun to scare the kids or for campfire stories."
Others take a more scientific approach in their skepticism. Matthew Sharps, a professor of psychology at California State University-Fresno, researches eyewitness memory and says one person's account grows as it is passed on.
"The story becomes part of the memory. Obviously these things aren't real but people really see them, so they behave toward them as though they are real. They are eyewitness memory errors," he said.
People with tendencies toward depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or disassociation are more prone to see UFOs or creatures, his research shows, and the encounters can be harmful.
"It can be a life-changing experience. They go around telling people, and they think you are crazy. So now I've got to prove Bigfoot is there. Now I'm driving around with 'American Bigfoot Project' printed on my van and telling my wife I'll be done as soon as I find Bigfoot."
Lewis doesn't see the harm. In fact, even though he said he's unsure what happened those fall nights in 1903 in Van Meter, seeking the answer was more important than finding it.
His weird legends can rekindle interest in local history, such as coal mining and old brickyards, and help understand the lifestyles and mindset of citizens back then.
It can even be a tourist draw.
"The people of Van Meter saved this story for the rest of us," he said. "They are doomed to it I guess."