Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Twisted Strange Tale of the Van Meter Visitor

It might be safe to say that the residents of Van Meter, Iowa were not prepared for the strange events that occurred in their town in late September, 1903. But then again, it's not every day that a giant bat-like creature emerges upon a town and terrorizes it's citizens.

That's exactly what reportedly happened in Van Meter shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. What makes this story so fascinating, and perhaps even more believable is the fact that the events took place downtown, right in the heart of the city in it's business district. Among the people who witnessed this strange creature were prominent members of the community; the town's  doctor, a banker (who shot at the creature through the bank window), and a couple of businessmen, one being the owner of a local hardware store. This wasn't a story that was concocted by a group of over imaginative kids from the outskirts of town... Based off the events and the people involved, it's clear that something extremely odd happened in Van Meter over a 5 night period in 1903.

But, what?

Meet authors Chad Lewis, Noah Voss and Kevin Lee Nelson. Having heard about the Van Meter "monster" while doing research on a different project, these three men became fascinated with the story. Through extensive research and from visiting with residents of Van Meter they were able to dig up enough information to write a book about the strange occurrences that happened in 1903.

The Van Meter Visitor was released on May 1st.
(This and all photos from the Van Meter Visitor Website)

The book, The Van Meter Visitor (A True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown), was released for publication on May 1st. It instantly received wide acclaim and has been discussed on paranormal radio shows throughout the globe. Most notably perhaps, it was talked about on Coast to Coast AM, the largest radio show of it's type in the world. It was from that conversation that I first heard about the incidents in Van Meter. Because the events happened so close to home, it was enough to jar me out of bed to do some late-night research of my own. That led me to the Van Meter Visitor Facebook page, which put me in contact with Kevin Lee Nelson. I fired some questions off to him, and he responded back right away. His answers were extremely detailed and informative, and he made it clear that he was willing to answer as many questions as I had. As a writer and a fan of the paranormal, it was a best case scenario. I am tremendously grateful  to Kevin for his friendly involvement and for taking the time to respond to me. 

The following is a transcript of our online conversation.


How did you first hear about the Van Meter Visitor?

My co-author, Chad Lewis, came across a brief 1903 newspaper article about the incident while doing work for his book, The Iowa Road Guide to Haunted Locations.  It didn't really fit the haunted theme of his book at the time, so he filed it away to revisit later.  A few years later, while on a research-gathering road trip to Iowa, Chad pulled out the story and thought it might be a good idea to visit Van Meter to see what else we could dig up regarding the incident.  At first we didn't expect to find much, as the case was over 100 years old.  However, by the end of the trip we were amazed by how much information we had gathered.  Before long, we realized we had enough to write a book on the incident. 

In as much detail as you can muster, what happened on that fateful night in 1903?

The Van Meter incident actually happened over a series of 5 nights, from early morning Tuesday Sept 29th – October 3rd 1903.  On the first night, at about 1 am., respected businessman U.G. Griffith noticed what he thought was a spot light moving around on the rooftop of one of the downtown buildings.  At first he thought it might be a burglar, but when he approached it jumped to another rooftop across the street and disappeared.

The next night (again around 1 am.) Dr. Alcott, the town doctor, was sleeping in a room at his office when he was awoken by a bright light shining into his face through the window.  He rushed outside with gun in hand only to discover the source of the light was a tall humanoid with bat-like wings.  The blinding light came from a blunt horn in the creature’s forehead.  He fired five shots at the creature at close range.  After seeing the shots has no noticeable effect he fled.

The bank where Clarence (Peter) Dunn encountered the creature

The next night local banker, Clarence (Peter) Dunn, had an encounter with the Visitor.  After hearing about the previous night’s encounters, Mr. Dunn felt he should watch over the bank. Fearing burglars, he brought along his shotgun for the night’s watch. Around 1 am he heard a “strangling noise” outside.  Before he could investigate he was hit full in the face with a blinding beam that shone through the font window.  The light suddenly switched off and then back on again as if scanning the room, finally swinging back at him.  He could make out “some kind of great form” behind the light.  Dunn fired his shotgun at the mysterious being, right through the bank’s front window.  Then it vanished.  In the morning he noticed sets of large three-toed foot prints outside the bank and claimed to have made plaster casts of them.

By the following day the previous nights events had circulated around the town. Later that night local hardware store owner O.V. White had an encounter with the Visitor.  He was jolted awake by a metallic rasping sound outside his 2nd floor room above his hardware store on Main St.  He grabbed his gun and moved toward the window.  Outside he saw the Visitor perched close by on the crossbeam of a telephone pole.  White, a known marksman, took deliberate aim and fired at the creature.  It had no effect, and only seemed to awaken the Visitor.  The creature emitted a stupefying odor that overpowered White, knocking him unconscious. 

The shots awoke White’s neighbor Sidney Gregg, who raced outside to see what the commotion was about.  He watched in disbelief as the “monster” descended the telephone pole after the manner of a parrot, using its huge beak.  Upon reaching the ground it stood erect, and by Mr. Gregg’s estimates it was “at least eight feet high.”  Whatever it was, the light from its forehead was as “bright…as an electric headlight.” The light again darted about just as it had the nights before in a “searching” motion.  The creature paused only for a moment before taking off towards the old coal mine. 

The following night strange sounds were heard coming from the abandoned coal mine at the edge of town described by a local as “though Satan and a regiment of imps were coming forth for a battle.”  The Visitor, accompanied by a second creature, were spotted emerging from the mine and taking off into the night.  A large crowd of armed men gathered at the mine to ambush the creatures when they returned.  They were reported as having enough firepower to “have sunk the Spanish fleet”.  Shortly before dawn the creatures returned.  The crowd opened fire on the creatures.  To their bewilderment, the creatures were totally immune to their assault and only gave off the terrible odor as a response before they crawled back down into the mine.  The next day it was reported that “a force of men has been set to work to barricade the mouth of the mine” sealing the creatures inside.  The creatures were never seen again.

What about the mine? Is there currently any trace of it left in town?

The mine was an enormous operation.  It was was 257 ft deep and big enough to have stables underground for mules.  Sadly there is almost no visible trace of the mine today.  We stood at the site of the mine’s opening.  All that remains is a bowl shaped depression in the ground.  Who knows what remains underground.  It’s been sealed for over a century.  There are a few crumbling remains of the Brick and Tile factory next to the mine.   We include a few photos of these buildings in the book.  It’s a very haunting location and has more than its own share of ghost tales.

Van Meter, Iowa as it looked in 1903

What evidence, if any still exists in Van Meter?

Some of the locations and buildings still exist, like the remains of the Brick and Tile factory next to the old mine.  According to the original reports, a plaster case was made of the Visitor's footprint, described as being large and three-toed.  Unfortunately, it is unknown whether or not the plaster cast survived.  We're hoping that it has been stashed in someone's attic somewhere and that eventually someone will come forward with it.

Talking about it on Coast to Coast AM, John B. Wells sort of eluded to the fact that the creature might have been a UFO... More of a machine than an animal. He based this theory on the fact that while several people took shots at it, the "creature" seemed unaffected by the bullets. What do YOU think this "creature" was?

Artist's rendition
That's the big question: what was the Van Meter Visitor?  In the book we explore a wide variety of theories, from the mundane hoax, to mass hysteria, to more exotic ones, like a possible ultraterrestrial.  The odd part about the Van Meter Visitor is that it exhibited a number of bizarre and unearthly traits: a horn that projected a bright light beam, metallic sounds, and immunity to gunfire.  I can't speak for my co-authors, but I tend to put it in the ultraterrestrial category much like Mothman due to its seemingly paraphyscial nature.  In fact, the features of the Van Meter case are so similar to events of the Mothman case that one could consider it a proto-Mothman event, as it happened 60 years before the events in Point Pleasant.  The overpowering sulfur-like odor is also a a common trait associated with alleged ultraterrestrials, like Florida’s Skunk-ape, which got its name from its terrible smell.

Like John Keel and Jacques Vallee, one of our working theories is that many paranormal events and encounters may all fall under the umbrella of ultraterrestrial phenomena (a.k.a. hyperterrestrials, metaterrestrials, etc.), as it appears to be potential “unified theory” of paranormal phenomena.

Have you come across similar stories from elsewhere that reflect the events in Iowa in 1903?

While researching this case we immediately noticed that the Visitor’s description was similar in many ways to other mysterious flying creatures cases, like the Jersey Devil, the Baltimore Snallygaster, and of course Mothman.  This kind of phenomena has been going on for a long time; one only has to look at legends, folklore, and oral traditions to see similar stories going back hundreds of years.  For example the Ioway Tribe that once lived in the region of Van Meter, had tales of humanoid Thunderbirds that would shoot “lightning” from their eyes.

You mentioned that you were amazed at the amount of info that you were able to gather. May I ask how it was gathered? Are there accounts of it in a local museum, or were you able to talk with locals who had heard the stories passed down through the generations? Are there any historical markers etc?

We were able to dig up a decent amount of info at the Van Meter library, especially in regards to the town’s history. Jolena Welker, the Van Meter Public Library Director, was a great help too.  We hunted through town records and found a fair amount of useful background information.  Their archives were an essential resource.  It shows that with obscure cases like this one really has to get out into the field.  The internet is a great tool, but it’s only useful to a point; a lot of research still has to be done the old fashion way, that is, by hitting the road, visiting archives and sifting through old files, and interviewing people.  The three of us regularly go on research road-trips in order to uncover hidden stories, explore local legends, and investigate anomalous events.

Kevin Lee Nelson
I really have to give my co-author Chad Lewis credit on the historical info part in particular.  He was the point man in uncovering biographical information about the key witnesses.  As you can imagine, finding personal information about folks who lived over 100 years ago in a small Iowa town is a daunting task, to say the least.  I should also note that my other co-author, Noah Voss, did a wonderful job putting together a timeline of each encounter with the Visitor, which assisted in creating a full and clear narrative of what happened over those five nights.

As for local tales, we discovered that people in Van Meter had mostly forgotten about the incident.  A few people knew about here and there, but most were unfamiliar with the tale.  We were able to talk with the current landowners of where the mine once stood.  They were aware of strange stories associated with the site.  However, in general the tale was mostly forgotten in town.  We’re not entirely sure if the story was intentionally hushed up or what. Perhaps the townsfolk feared ridicule and quickly tried to put the strange events behind them.  This is another reason why we felt the need to write a book about it, as we didn’t want such a unique story to be forgotten.  There are no historical markers currently, but perhaps that will change.  I’m sure if Van Meter erected a statue of the Visitor, like Point Pleasant did with Mothman, it would become quite a draw.

How would you describe the "attitude" of the town's residents today in terms of the strange events that happened in 1903? Were people willing to talk about it? Would you say most brushed it off as fiction, or do you think that most think something actually happened?

We’ve encountered a tremendous amount of support from the people of Van Meter.  We held a presentation there a few weeks ago, and over 100 people showed up to hear the story about the Visitor.  Most had never heard the tale before, so they were very curious to find out about a hidden chapter of their town’s history.  People had a lot of questions, and many shared a number of odd stories about the area with us.  I got the impression that most believe something happened; they’re just not sure what exactly it was.


Pertinent Links:

Buy the Book

The Van Meter Visitor Official

The Van Meter Visitor on Facebook

Another website operated by the authors: Back Roads Lore 

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