Apocalypse Town: The Doomsday Disciples of Stelle, Illinois

iStock/DaveLongMedia
iStock/DaveLongMedia

In the early 1970s, people in the rural farming community of Cabery, Illinois, looked on with curiosity at what was happening in the cornfields surrounding their town. Ranch-style houses began popping up where stalks once grew, and began spreading out far enough to form street blocks. Plastic and paper factories were being erected. Well-dressed men and women orbited the development. The newcomers' intentions were mysterious, leading locals to begin speculating that their new neighbors might be part of a religious cult, or even laboring to build spaceships. Some longtime residents were so disturbed by the new arrivals that they’d drive by and fire weapons in the vicinity, hoping to scare them off.

But the people of Stelle, as the town came to be known (the word is German for "the place"), wouldn’t be so easily rattled. They believed the end of the world was looming, and they were preparing accordingly. Community friction would pale in comparison to the earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions that would herald the dawning of a new civilization. As the rest of the world scrambled for resources, Stelle would manage its own water, sewage, and communications lines before relocating to a Pacific island—a sprawling collection of Adams and Eves who would survive the end of the world, which they believed would arrive on May 5, 2000.

The date was given to them by their leader, Richard Kieninger, a former engineer from Chicago who had prophesied the apocalypse and set them on a path of readiness. He predicted Stelle would grow to 10,000 inhabitants in just a few years.

He was off by about 9800 people.

 

Short, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, Kieninger was no one’s idea of a charismatic conductor of a new civilization. He even rejected his role at times, insisting he never sought out such an important function as society's savior. Instead, he claimed, it had been bestowed upon him.

In 1963, Kieninger wrote a book titled The Ultimate Frontier, a quasi-autobiography published under the pen name Eklal Kueshana, in which he described being visited as a youth by a “Brotherhood” of scientists and philosophers who instructed him to prepare for pending calamities by erecting a self-reliant society that observed the Golden Rule. For good measure, they branded his thigh with their symbol. (Kieninger would later decline to show journalists proof of his marking.)

Readers of The Ultimate Frontier, though few in number, embraced Kieninger’s message. By 1973, he and several others had pooled $169,000 to buy 320 acres of farmland in rural Illinois, roughly 85 miles south of Chicago. The flat, remote area seemed like an ideal place to wait out the pending chaos; Kieninger claimed he was told by the Brotherhood to focus his efforts there.

Residential housing and a water treatment plant were among the first construction jobs. Next came schools, sewage treatment facilities, and phone lines. (Stelle would eventually fight a nine-year court battle to have their own independently-operated telephone service separated from the major carriers.) Would-be residents idled in adjacent neighborhoods, waiting for an opportunity to join the community.

Space wasn’t the sole determining factor of Stelle citizenship. Kieninger didn’t actively recruit anyone: He had a pool of interested parties who had read his book, then sifted through them to see if they met the requirements for his budding utopia. Residents had to be at least 21 years old with some background in business, as Stelle would have to generate its own economy through entrepreneurial efforts. He turned away people he considered to be of less than sound psychological mind. He also required tithing of 10 percent, with the funds fueling the continued growth of the town. Kieninger said he accepted only about 25 percent of those who applied to become residents of Stelle.

Once accepted, Stelle occupants were expected to follow the behavioral mandates laid out in Kieninger’s book. There would be no drinking or intoxicants of any kind; smoking would be prohibited if people nearby found it unpleasant; men were required to shave and wear business attire even if they labored in construction, switching to their work clothes on site; women could not wear pants. Mothers were instructed not to work, as raising a child was considered of paramount importance; they were expected to offer one-on-one instruction for the first three years of a child's schooling.

In return, Stelle's citizens embraced one another. Doors were kept unlocked and lost $20 bills were pinned to community bulletin boards. Children flourished, reading at age 3 and writing by age 4.

As the 1970s wore on, Stelle blossomed, growing to house more than 200 residents and erecting solar-paneled buildings that would allow its citizens to thrive if electric services shut down in the wake of a collapsed society. Kieninger told curious journalists that Stelle would soon have its own self-contained shops and services, with residents walking into stores and putting items on credit to cut down on paper currency. Work was also moving along on airships that would relocate the community's entire population to a Pacific island when the natural disasters began.

There was just one problem: While Stelle was a united community, their collective faith in Kieninger was starting to wane. Lacking the kind of fiery charisma seen in other coercive cult leaders, Kieninger held little sway over the residents he once enticed to the area. When arguments broke out over the future of Stelle, his community did what any self-sufficient neighborhood would do when faced with a prophet who couldn’t deliver any prophecies: They kicked him out.

 

Kieninger’s departure from Stelle in 1975 was never explained in full. Some attribute it to a power struggle that broke out between Kieninger and his own wife, who remained in Stelle when Kieninger left to start a new community, Adelphi, in Texas. He returned to Stelle on a monthly basis for meetings as a kind of remote soothsayer before parting ways with them for good in 1986.

In the interim, residents of Stelle had begun to abandon some of the tenets that had brought them there in the first place. When 1976 passed without Kieninger’s predicted economic strife, faith in him was shaken. Citizens balked at being deemed survivalists or perceived as weird by their fellow Ford County residents. Building airships to transport them to new land was going nowhere. Why, people wondered, couldn’t they just exist as a cooperative community without a looming sense of dread?

So the behavioral requirements were largely dropped. There would be no more tithing. Instead, Stelle would focus its efforts on being a green community, expanding its use of solar energy, and using a 21-foot wind turbine for its water treatment plant.

By 1997, only a third of Stelle's 100 or so occupants still believed in Kieninger’s teachings; another third were reformed; the rest lived there simply because they liked it.

Today, Stelle is still on the map and promoting its eco-friendly habits. There are cooperative groups for gardening, tool-sharing, and meal preparation. The community lays claim to a number of U.S. firsts, including the first solar-powered telephone company and the first solar-powered wireless internet service. The further they get from Kieninger’s predicted world demise on May 5, 2000, the more Stelle has distanced itself from its former identity as a doomsday sect.

That’s fine by Kieninger, who never seemed totally comfortable with his appointed role as a prophet. After years had passed without calamity, he told a local newspaper that heralding the end of the world wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

"I’m getting kind of burned out trying to put a precise time on these things," he said.

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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