From the pages of the Southeast Missouri Post
“Who Was Wendell Gilbert?”
By Carlton Hurldon
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Briar Hills, Missouri, like any American city, has its share of dark history. The local police have entire boxes of unresolved cases dating back over a hundred years. But the most intriguing of all these is arguably the disappearance of Wendell Gilbert.
Gilbert was born March 11, 1865 in Chicago. The son of Ruben Gilbert, a tremendously successful investment broker, Wendell spent much of his youth traveling the world with his parents and, at an early age, became fascinated with world architecture. He had a gift for aesthetic design and quickly made a name for himself on the west coast with a number of ambitious projects, including the erection of the Grasby Center in San Diego, perhaps his most famous landmark.
In 1897, Gilbert traveled abroad and spent the next twelve years in Europe, working on increasingly elaborate structures like the Allwardt Building in Great Britain, the Holgado Tower in France and the Winderbaum Center in Germany, as well as other less notable projects in Spain, Sweden and Italy. Many of these projects he oversaw simultaneously, traveling frequently between building sites and leaving his foremen to oversee the daily work.
Upon returning to the states in 1909, Gilbert spent a few short years on the east coast before moving to the upper Midwest, then back to his birthplace of Chicago. A few years later, he moved again to St. Louis and finally found his way to Briar Hills, where he spent the final ten years of what is known of his life.
His most notable work in Briar Hills included the extensive renovations to the city’s police station and hospital, and he designed and built the new courthouse and public library. But although the quality of his work was indisputable, Gilbert was met with harsh criticism for his insistence on using cheap immigrant labor instead of the skilled local tradesmen.
Then, in early 1927, he was contracted by Briar Hills University to design and build a new and much needed men’s dormitory to handle its rapidly growing student body. Unfortunately, the project proved to be doomed from the start.
Gilbert made a number of changes to the project during the planning stage that directly contradicted the university’s requests, not the least of which was that Gilbert moved the structure more than a hundred yards from the university’s intended location. He also changed the building’s materials from brick to a much pricier stone and significantly redesigned the electric and plumbing layouts in such a way that they would have been almost ten times as expensive as in the original plans. The university protested these changes, but was met with resistance at every turn as Gilbert manipulated them through a veritable maze of legal and bureaucratic diversions, which kept them distracted and disassociated from his work for many months.
Eventually, the university’s lawyers stepped in to seize the reigns of the project, but by then it was too late. Gilbert was gone, as were all of his workers, apparently deported back to their own countries. The money was lost and all that was ever completed of the university’s new dormitory was an empty set of useless concrete walls.
It would be another two years before Briar Hills University finally opened the doors of its new men’s dormitory, now Daney Hall, located on Carey Street. Built mostly on funds donated by sympathetic parties and through vigorous fundraising, this new building was considerably smaller than the one Gilbert was contracted to build, but would prove to serve the institution’s needs for several years.
Meanwhile, the site of the original failed project remained untouched. In 1952, a large plot of neighboring farmland was purchased, providing cheaper and more convenient locations on which to build. As a result, the university has never bothered to tear down Gilbert’s useless concrete walls and today the location is little more than an overgrown eyesore, known by many of the locals as “Gilbert House.”
Wendell Gilbert, the famed architect, in spite of his accomplishments, was now considered a fraud and a thief. Local authorities assumed that he took the money and deposited it in an unknown offshore account. His strange behavior (the changes to the university’s plans and the bureaucratic runaround) was assumed to be a smokescreen to keep the university distracted while he committed his crime. And once the money was safe, he obviously left the country. But several details about his crime did not add up. The most glaring of these details was the amount of money Gilbert supposedly stole. It was significantly less than what he left unclaimed in his bank accounts after his disappearance.
What really became of Wendell Gilbert? No evidence has ever been uncovered to shed light on what was really going on. Some historians believe that the brilliant architect must have gone mad. Others insist that his odd behavior indicated that he might have been being blackmailed and was likely murdered by an unknown enemy. A few creative locals have even suggested that Gilbert was caught up in something supernatural. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that he left clues hidden throughout his life’s work around the world, clues that, if correctly deciphered from the many buildings he designed and renovated, would reveal the secret location of the stolen money or perhaps something even more valuable.
[Carlton Hurldon is a local historian and an enthusiastic collector of regional legends and mysteries. He has lived his entire life in the Briar Hills area and is the author of four books and numerous guest articles for the Southeast Missouri Post.]
From the pages of the Southeast Missouri Post
By Carlton Hurldon
Monday, October 22, 2007
The city of Briar Hills is a compact metropolis and an urban oasis amid hundreds of miles of rural farmland in southeast Missouri. Located on the banks of the Mississippi river, it is home to Briar Hills University and a very mysterious history.
Officially founded as a city in 1769, it is believed to have been settled much earlier, with some historians suggesting that the city might be among the oldest modern settlements west of the Mississippi River. But the city’s real origin might be even older than imagined. Archeological findings have revealed the presence of an unknown Native American village that occupied the area sometime before the arrival of these modern settlers. It remains unclear what became of these original residents, but it is generally accepted that they were either killed off by the invading European settlers or, more likely, by a rival tribe some time before their arrival.
Even in modern times, the history of Briar Hills has remained mostly murky. Surviving records predating the 1880s are rare and remarkably vague even when they are found. Little is known about the early years of the city and its government. Even several of the city’s prominent structures have mysterious origins. For example, although it is well known that the elaborate building currently housing the Heritage Museum used to be the courthouse before the construction of the new one in 1919, there are no records revealing what it might have been before it was the courthouse. The game warden’s office and the First Baptist Church have similar forgotten origins, though their beautiful architecture defied the rustic setting of the early city, and historians are unsure why such buildings would ever have been built here. Most peculiar of all, however, is the city’s complex subterranean underworld. Miles of tunnels exist beneath the streets and buildings of the city, a great many of which with no discernable purpose.
In recent decades, the tunnels have been augmented with modern sewers, but these remain entangled with a confusing labyrinth of passageways that have become the basis for countless superstitious and supernatural rumors. Everything from witchcraft to government conspiracies have been cited as the motives for the creation of the tunnels, which are said to intertwine with a vast natural cavern system, but no evidence exists to support any such claims. However, a surprising number of the city’s residents insist that the tunnels are haunted.
City officials deny the existence of any supernatural activity and warn curious residents not to enter the tunnels. “Those tunnels are city property and trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” warns David Dodd, Briar Hills’ chief of police. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt down there.” Most of the tunnel system’s entry points are gated off for public safety, but determined explorers have been known to find their way in, creating public hazard concerns for Dodd and the city police.
The original purpose of Briar Hills’ subterranean mystery may never be revealed, but there will definitely be no shortage of theories by those who call this city home. And who can blame them for letting their imaginations get away from them? One can only wonder what secrets might be hidden down there somewhere.
On Monday, May 16, 2011, at 1:09 in the afternoon, the city of Tunipet in northern Missouri was rocked by an unexplained “boom.” The event was centered around the main office of Bleckle Distributing Co. on North Timber Street.
All of the windows on the north and west sides of the building were blown out by the boom, raining broken glass and debris onto passing pedestrians and severely damaging at least one vehicle. But when rescue crews were dispatched to the scene, there was no sign of fire, no serious injuries, or any structural damage whatsoever. According to reports, there was no evidence found of any combustibles, ruling out any kind of explosion as the cause.
Witnesses reported a deep, “booming” noise that some described as sounding like an “underwater explosion” and the building’s windows blowing outward all at once, rattling cars and setting off alarms up and down the street. One witness even claimed to have seen a man thrown from the building’s second floor, but as there is no evidence of anyone admitted to any nearby hospitals with serious injuries, this particular detail can’t be proven.
None of the neighboring buildings were damaged in the event and no one seems to be able to explain what happened. There have been plenty of wild theories thrown around by conspiracy theorists, however, as has come to be expected of such unexplained stories.
Let’s just all agree to blame the Illuminati and move on.
The residents of Pasoken, Wisconsin aren’t amused. For the past two years, the city has been plagued by unsettling sightings of a creepy clown lurking about at night.
That’s right, I said clown. Someone has been dressing up like a freaking clown and creeping around at night. No one knows the man’s identity, but he’s clearly trying to scare people, and I suspect he’s succeeding magnificently, considering that this scares me and I’ve never even been to Pasoken.
The prankster was first sighted on Sinnow Creek Road, just outside the city limits. Reportedly, he could be found on certain nights walking up and down the shoulder of the winding road in the dark, where unsuspecting travelers would get a scare as they came around the curves in the dark. This quickly earned him the name “The Sinnow Creek Road Clown.”
But the painted terror didn’t stay on Sinnow Creek Road long. Soon after he appeared, he began to turn up on other quiet roads in the area. And as of this past summer, he’s been spotted inside the city limits as well. Witnesses have reported catching sight of the clown crossing parking lots and sitting on darkened benches at night. He’s been spotted loitering in parks and even staring back from dark alleyways.
So far, authorities haven’t apprehended the clown. Of course, they also have no reason to. Although he’s scaring the pants off people, he technically hasn’t broken any laws. It’s not illegal to dress like a clown or walk around alone at night. He hasn’t trespassed on private property, harassed anyone or even attempted to hitchhike. Being creepy isn’t a crime, so residents of Pasoken are out of luck and I’ll be staying well away from there pretty much forever.
People love an unsolvable mystery. I know I do. There’s just something about the idea that you’ll never know what really happened. Take this one, for example, from Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Seventeen-year-old Aiden Chadwick went missing in Creek Bend, Wisconsin, never to be seen again. It sounds fairly mundane, but what makes this particular missing person case stand out is that it stubbornly defies logical explanation.
What we know about the case is that at 4:23 pm, Aiden entered a small, gas station convenience store with his mother. He can be seen walking in on the closed-circuit security cameras. He’s seen wandering around, even grabbing a bottle of soda from one of the coolers. He’s acting perfectly normal. Nothing suspicious. Then he steps out of frame and into a blind spot in the security footage and simply never steps back in.
There were plenty of witnesses on the scene, but none of them saw anything unusual. He didn’t leave through any door. All the exits were covered by cameras and there was no tampering found on the film. A thorough search of the property turned up nothing. No trace of Aiden was ever found. It was as if he simply ceased to exist.
The story went viral. For the next few days, it was all over the news. The media did what the media does and sensationalized it. The internet gave it wings and carried the news across the globe. Then, not surprisingly, came the crackpot theories and the conspiracy nuts, claiming everything from alien abductions and government cover-ups to time paradoxes and wormholes. People were scrutinizing every frame of the footage, pointing out every flaw on the film, claiming to see orbs, shadows and odd glitches that were somehow irrefutable proof of the presence of trans-dimensional beings.
But really, why not? No one else had any clue how to explain it. I know I can’t. It was like a locked room murder mystery, but there wasn’t even a body. I’m a proud skeptic and even I have to wonder if Aiden Chackwick didn’t fall through a freak hole in the universe.
Sadly, none of us will probably ever know the truth. But personally, I think I’m okay with that. Are you?