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The Van Meter Visitor

The Van Meter VisitorA chronology of events

There was much to do in 1903. In January, The Wizard of Oz premiered on Broadway. But in March, visitors to Niagara Falls would have been disappointed, as it ran dry due to the drought sweeping parts of the country. The summer heat created a great opportunity for new company Pepsi to market its product. If you were lucky enough to have one of Ford Motor Company’s first cars, the Model A, you could have even driven to the nearest theater to watch the premier of America’s first Western film, “Kit Carson.” The more home-bodied folks living in rural Iowa still could have added color to their night with a new creation, Crayola crayons, in what must have been a sincerely impressive eight different colors. Much to do indeed, and the weather was cooperating for those who had to spend a good deal of it outdoors.

It had been a warm start to autumn in Iowa with just the right amount of rain. Local Van Meter resident U.G. Griffith would have been able to take advantage of the nice weather on Monday to make his rounds. Mr. Griffith sold different tools through the area. But early Tuesday morning was different.

As he pulled into his home town of Van Meter after midnight, he noticed something different. On the roof of the Mather & Gregg building, there was an unusual light where there had never been one before. He down the road, nearer to the light and worked through the logical possibilities of what the light could have been. One of his first thoughts was a troublesome one… burglars. But before he could get closer to the building, something unexpected happened. He must have been relieved, yet startled, when the light mysteriously moved to the other side of the street. While it was suddenly clear that he needn’t worry about burglars any longer, he was confounded.

The light was now on the roof of another building, on the opposite side of the street. His thoughts must have quickened if not his heart with this new observation. He probably would have wondered what and how something could move like that. As quickly as the unusual light had moved across the street, it disappeared all together. Eventually reaching his home in Van Meter, I imagine that Mr. Griffith drifted off to sleep, his mind still circling the unexplained light.

[Insert 002 Caption Reads: Van Meter Iowa circa 1905. Sign reads “Revolution Store.”]

Tuesday - September 29th

What little sleep Mr. Griffith got was likely followed by confused conversation later that day as the town awoke to hear his unusual sighting. They were confused, perhaps because he was an established figure in the community of Van Meter and what’s more—respected as a person. He owned a business with his brother, and they were “uniformly respected” throughout the Van Meter area. His brother was active in the community, sitting on the Village Council and a member of at least two local clubs. Newspapers reporting on this sighting insinuate that while perhaps intriguing, the sighting did not put the town into a fearful frenzy.

Something far beyond frenzied fear was to come the next night. The sun set on Van Meter as any other day. Darkness blanketed the area by 6:30 that evening. The local town doctor, Dr. Alcott, kept a room behind his office. Thunderstorms rumbled and flashed on the western horizon as Dr. Alcott prepared for bed. Perhaps a dark and stormy night ensued.

Wednesday - Early Morning - September 30th 1903

In a terrifying moment, the doctor was torn from his slumber by a bright light shining in his face. Clearly this was not a light the doctor recognized. He instantly knew no one was seeking his help for a medical emergency or simply stopping by at an odd hour peeking in to see if he was awake—this was different. Wasting no time, he ran outside to confront this conundrum. The ground still wet from the passing showers and the air filled with the familiar smell of freshly fallen leaves, he was challenged with something beyond his years of experience.

Standing behind the source of the light, Dr. Alcott could make out a half-human and half-animal that displayed even more mind boggling traits such as “great bat-like wings.” The doctor could see where the light was coming from, and it only muddied the mystery visitor more. In the center of the creature’s forehead was a “single blunt horn.” The light seemed to be somehow emanating from this blunted horn. The doctor was close to the creature and felt the only course of action was to slay the mysterious and monstrous source of light. Gripping his gun firmly, he shot at the monster. Not only once or twice, but five fearful shots were hurled at the beast. He must have had to quickly rethink his initial approach after not even one of the shots had any noticeable effect. With only one remaining shot left, Dr. Alcott retreated back into his office.

Once safe inside, the feeling was fleeting. He locked the doors and frantically moved to do the same to his windows. Sleep was not likely easy to come by and likely with gun in hand, Dr. Alcott eagerly awaited the comfort of light brought on by morning.

Wednesday - September 30th 1903

Those who heard Dr. Alcott’s tale must have had disbelief written on their faces. How could someone such as the town doctor, trusted with the well-being of others, tell a tale of such terrifying encounters in the darkest of night? 

For the rest of Wednesday, Van Meter would have been set abuzz with whispers of Dr. Alcott’s nearly harrowing encounter. For those who had heard about Mr. Griffith’s unusual sighting of the acrobatic light the night before, things would have started to add up…but to all the wrong numbers. Van Meter remained cloudy all day, in an almost foreboding gray cast through the otherwise colorful fall foliage.

For anyone dismissing the reports out of hand or thinking that the two good chaps just had a bad dinner, more witnesses were coming…and in short order.

The sun had now long since set on Wednesday and the moon peered out from behind the mostly cloudy nighttime sky.

Thursday - Early Morning - October 1st 1903

Though mostly cloudy skies blanketed the hamlet of Van Meter throughout the early morning hours, Thursday was the first sighting to take place with the moon still having not yet set. One can imagine our next brave soul, Clarence Dunn, as he walked alone through the quiet night. Clarence was known to his friends as Peter. Just a sliver-more-than-a-half-moon peered out between passing clouds. Shadows began to be illuminated by the soft glow of the moon, only to be suddenly swallowed up by the dimmest dark of the next passing cloud. This give and take of illumination must have seemed more menacing to Peter tonight than any other…. a short and soundless battle taking place all around him between the light and the dark with each passing cloud. Even with other people around here and there, these are the thoughts that can attack an aware man’s calm. Peter was on a steadfast mission and would not be deterred.

Peter was widely respected and graduated high school from a neighboring town. After completing his collegiate studies, he took a job as the cashier for the Van Meter Bank. So respected by his neighbors, Peter would be promoted to bank manager and hold several city positions, including mayor, over the next few decades. Tonight, however, he was simply a man, alone in the dark, who had left the safety of his home and family to watch over the bank.

Peter worried that robbers were the source of all the town’s excited sightings and he was determined to introduce them to his committed character. To help steady his nerves, he carried his “trusty shot gun” packed with a formidable load of “buckshot.” Once at the bank, Peter settled in for a long night’s watch. Just as on the previous two nights, things started to occur after midnight. The “town clock struck one” when he heard another noise—one he had not expected.

The noise was confusing. Was it that of garbled gasps for air by some unseen creature whether wild animal or human?  Peter described it as if someone were strangling. But before he could investigate further, a strange light “shone full upon him” through the front window, blinding him. As the light moved, it darted about the room and Peter was able to garner a better glimpse of the source. Steadying the barrel of the shotgun towards the creature, he fired and his shot shattered the glass.

As quickly as the light appeared, the creature disappeared. A more thorough search was made as soon as dawn broke. Peter thought he had killed the creature but nothing remained, save a few tracks. In true modern-day cryptozoologist form, Peter even made a “plaster cast” of the “great three-toed tracks.” 

The rest of Van Meter awoke and began their normal daily routine. Though it was clear skies and sunshine just to the south for most of the day Thursday, the clouds hung almost meaningfully around Van Meter as if knowing there would be something more to obscure. The sun would set in nine fleeting hours, and darkness would again drip down across the land…and with it, something else.

Thursday Evening - October 1st 1903

Soft winds brought a wispy rain slowly from the north, just enough to dampen the bones a bit on this forlorn autumn evening. The town slowly quieted down as the daily to-do’s got done or put off until Friday.

Things were quiet until the very striking moment a grating, sharply harsh and pointed noise broke the night’s stillness. O.V. White was jolted awake by an abrupt racket emanating from just outside his second story room on Main Street. He kept lodgings over Fisher & White, the hardware and furniture store that he co-owned. Mr. White wasted no time in arming himself, likely hearing the talk of some mysterious monster terrorizing the town at night. He may have already had a good idea of what he was in for when he grabbed his gun and moved towards his window.

As Mr. White’s eyes adjusted to the night, he detected a dark figure on the cross member of the telephone pole. In a moment Mr. White believed he was staring right at “the monster.”  Scarcely 15 feet away, the now determined Mr. White pulled the trigger. The creature did not fall to the ground as Mr. White expected. Instead, at the very moment he fired, the creature’s light turned on him. The shot from his gun only seemed to wake it up. His heart had to jump at the terrifying realization that he may have no way to defend himself from this monster. Mr. White recalled a powerful odor filled the air and was so strong that it “seemed to stupefy him.” Oddly enough, in an experience already past capacity for unusual, he couldn’t remember anything else about the night.

As the shot rang out, it woke Mr. Gregg who was sleeping in his store across the corner. As he opened the door and peered towards Main Street, he was met with the most curious creation “descending the telephone pole.” Mr. Gregg watched in dumbstruck disbelief as the monster descended the telephone pole using its beak like a parrot. 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. With the flapping of its wings the creature took giant “leaps” almost like that of a “kangaroo.” Just then, “fast mail came tearing through town” right on schedule, creating a familiar racket to the townsfolk in Van Meter. To the creature standing a mere 15 feet from Mr. Gregg, this seemed to be an unfamiliar noise. It “crouched as if in a spring,” paused for a moment, and “ran on all four feet” heading toward the “old coal mine.” Extending its wings, the creature flew away and disappeared. Mr. Gregg, clearly flustered, only then remembered he had a gun, but it was too late to use it.

If the Van Meter Visitor remained in the area for anyone to see the rest of the night, no one did. A change was on the wind.

Friday - October 2nd 1903

Friday had a wet start, though it would have only taken the slightest rain to dampen the people’s spirit and perhaps their perspective on the escalating events to come. To be sure, the once whispers of unusual events were now conversations raised to full argument volume throughout the town. Friday would have been a clear apex in the shift of any conversations. By this time, they must have all been discussing the mysterious Visitor.

A visitor comes calling in the middle of the night as you sleep. It is immense in size, towering above the tallest and strongest in town, and bullets seem to have no effect. The “confused witness” would no longer have been an acceptable excuse. The more pointed problem of “what is really going on here” would come across as a plea more than a question. This is where the fear lies—the unknown. Only after all the theories that don’t fit have been put forward and all the questions that remain are growing larger than one person can remember, then—and only then—does fear start to spread. Even if the town’s folk don’t know what it is they need to fear, or if they should at all, they begin to see it everywhere they look. People see fear in each other’s eyes over the rim of their pint glass. The fear of the unknown grows as one’s powerlessness becomes more clear and the twilight more dim. The fear in one’s mind is often far more cavernous than the cause before the eyes—though in Van Meter on this day, that just may not be so.

Friday Evening - October 2nd 1903

The townsfolk watched a thunderstorm rumble, roll and flash in the west with much the same trepidation they did the sun setting and with it the start of another terrifying night. Nightfall would bring with it darker shadows than most in Van Meter would remember them being. Much had changed in just a week. The creature had revealed itself to many already.

The work crews at the mine area were manned both day and night. They’d been hearing noises “for some time” emanating from the mine shafts. Not just noises mind you, but only the sounds that the most fearful mind can hear reported as “though Satan and a regiment of imps were coming forth for a battle.” The uproar of commotion would continue until reaching a fever pitch only an hour into Saturday morning. It would be a restless night for those catching wind of the newest monster reports.

Saturday - Early Morning - October 3rd 1903

The old coal mine on the edge of town had been shut down a few years. However, there was a functioning tile and brick factory on the same grounds. Operations manager J.L. Platt, Jr. was there early Saturday morning. As 1:00 a.m. approached almost as on cue, the sounds from the mine shaft drew J.L. Platt, Jr. to the edge. The moon was nearly full and, when not obstructed by the passing rain clouds, would have afforded Mr. Platt, Jr. to peer down just a bit further into the dark borehole. These mine shafts can drop down hundreds of feet with many twists and turns off in every direction, or a straight drop with no turns at all. They were also polluted with the worst runoff and chemical concoctions from when the mine was active. Add to that, the deadly gasses that can fill them and either explode with the slightest spark or silently suffocate anyone foolish enough to draw near enough to fall in.

J.L. Platt, Jr. was used to these mine shafts. As he got closer, the disturbing sounds grew louder and the monster appeared at the entrance. The shocking moment was not over, as directly behind the first monster there appeared “another somewhat smaller” one. They both gave off the “brilliant light” that was as striking as it was blinding. Mr. Pratt did have a good look at the monsters as they flew past, noticing their “horn-like protuberance” emanating the extraordinary light as they “sailed” away into the dark. As chilling as this experience may have been for the men present, they took comfort in their accidental discovery that could rid them and the town of Van Meter from the monsters—they had just discovered their lair.

This latest sighting at the mine shaft would have spread speedily through town, even at the odd hour. Men gathered their brimmed hats and rain coats for protection from the rain as they hatched a hasty and nefarious plan to ambush the monsters. They geared up with their most trusted, if not largest, gun available and headed back out into the night. As they left the sturdy confines of their homes, all the “electric lights were turned on.” Indeed, as they moved through the town back to the old mine and as word spread, the lights “all over town” were turned on in hopes to offer those left behind some protection and to “frighten” the monsters off. Should the creatures return to the old mine opening, “a crowd of men and guns were gathered together” near the entrance. Their plan was simple: “to rid the earth of them when they should return.”

The waiting began.

The cooler temperatures, paired with dank drizzle, can wear on a man’s spirit. After the excitement or adrenaline diminishes, the polish of any initial plan wears off and makes this time the hardest part of any plot. It is vital to keep focus on the mission—not just to stay awake but alert, for here there be monsters. And wait they did, at least four hours with nothing but their thoughts and what must have been nervously whispered conversations.

Nothing returned to the old mine area through the night, even though the watch never wavered. Just when the depression of defeat was starting to seep into the psyche of the men, someone noticed something. Perhaps it was the breaking of dawn at 5:46 a.m. and the warm comforting colors returning to the sky that allowed the dark, eight-foot-tall creature with huge, bat-like wings to be spotted as it approached the old mine. Not far behind was the second creature. The men who were still gathered at the mine fired shots. In a moment, their considerable guns fired countless times at the beasts. It must have sounded like an explosion to the rest of Van. It is recounted that the “reception received would have sunk the Spanish fleet.” The creatures added to the chaotic situation with their own thunderous and “unearthly noises” in response to the bullets. Then the “peculiar odor” returned as if released from the monsters. The men who laid in wait would have sent bullets down range to the monsters as fast as they could shoot. The same men were forced to watch in bewildered trepidation as the unaltered monsters casually and “slowly descended the shaft of the old mine.” As the last man fired his last bullet, I imagine a surreal silence befalling the entire grounds of the factory.

As the extreme moment passes, simple things that you were oblivious to only a moment prior become obvious again, as does the fact that you lost them for a time. Once the men realized that despite their most sincere and best efforts they had not accomplished their goal, something else creeps back in—fear. Some respond with excited conversations, dissecting the events as they happened only a moment before, just as on any big game hunt. The less emotional men would have had some realization that can rattle a person to their core; though they would likely never utter the words aloud, the new insight happens all the same. Whether they knew it or not, the men were powerless and even more confused than the day before. The once warriors would have begun to disperse.

Saturday - October 3rd 1903

As the tale of the terrorizing events at the factory and old mine undoubtedly burned through town like an uncontrollable wild fire, action needed to be taken. A “force of men” set to work to barricade the mouth of the mine. Locking up the monster in the mine seemed like a good next step.

From here we are left to wonder. Did they get the mine opening barricaded before nightfall? If so, did the creatures find another way out, or are their skeletons still deep inside the mine to this day? Perhaps they do not feel the cold, careless grip of time and are still trapped there today, evermore exploring for an exit?

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