The Shellabarger Grain Tower
A Mysterious Piece of Decatur's Haunted History

Located just off Morgan and Sangamon Streets is a round, dilapidated structure that looks much like a medieval castle tower with battlements around the top of it. The tower has not weathered well over the years, falling into obscurity and then being forgotten, much like the business it once belonged to. Over the years, the stories of ghosts and weird happenings surrounding the tower are better remembered than those who built it.

The tower was once a grain elevator on the property of a mill belonging to David S. Shellabarger, one of Decatur's leading citizens. Shellabarger came to Decatur in 1856. He had borrowed $65 from his father to travel west from Pennsylvania and when he arrived here, he started in the lumber business. He then turned to another important position in western communities when he began a grain milling company. In 1872, he sold out his share of the company and purchased a new mill along the Wabash railroad line. The business prospered in this prime location and for years, shipped flour all over the country.

In 1902, the Shellabarger mill joined with several others to form the American Hominy Co. As more farmland opened in the west, Shellabarger began buying other grain elevators and gradually decreased the milling of wheat in Decatur, switching over almost entirely to corn. The majority of this new product was sold to breweries, both locally and in St. Louis, in the form of corn grits. This was an important ingredient in alcohol production. Disaster came in 1920 though with the passing of the Volstead Act, which began prohibition and made illegal the sales and manufacture of liquor. The loss of the brewery market forced the collapse of the American Hominy Co. and ended production at the Shellabarger mill.

Grain production mills and disastrous fires have long gone hand in hand, thanks to the volatile conditions needed to manufacture the product. Strangely though, no one could explain the mysterious fire that swept through a portion of the Shellabarger mill in February 1923, as the mill had been closed down for almost three years. The exact amount of damage from the fire is unknown, but the blaze did destroy most of the structures in the complex, leaving only this tower and a few nearby buildings.

According to repots of the fire, several men lost their lives in the blaze and three of them tried to make it into the safety of the tower before being consumed by the flames. On certain nights of the year, witnesses report that you can still hear the sounds of these men screaming from inside of the tower. Do their ghosts still linger here? I can't say for sure, but for many years, those who lived in the area avoided this tower and children were forbidden to play nearby. I have talked to many people who ignored the warnings about the tower and came here anyway. Few of them ever stayed around for long, as it is not a place to be visited after dark!

The interior of the tower is a crowded and frightening place, filled with dust, cobwebs and rotting garbage. Every sound inside of it echoes loudly and a visitor is forced to speak in whispers as he explores the vacant grain chambers and the dangerous and forbidding basement. One can imagine that screams sounding from inside of this tower would undoubtedly be heard all over the surrounding neighborhood.

Could it be one of these "screaming ghosts" who also attacked a young boy in the tower in 1960?

I spoke with this man a few years ago and he grew up in the Longview House Project (once located near the tower) in the late 1950's and recalled vividly to me that his mother would never permitted him to play inside of the structure. She had warned he and his sister away from it many times. But being an active young boy, he decided to venture into the structure one afternoon. It was the first time that he had ever done so and it turned out to be the last!

"There's a real narrow hallway right inside the door, and then you go into this round room between all the grain bins," he recalled. "Just on the right side of it, there's a set of stairs that go down to the basement. You have to remember, I didn't have a light or anything and it was really dark down there.

He grinned a little nervously when he told me this. "I wouldn't go down there today, and don't know why I did it then, but I started down the steps".

He went down three steps and then suddenly, he was hit in the back by what felt like a large hand! Stumbling, he pitched forward and fell down the steps, turning over and over again on the stone staircase. As he sprawled onto the floor, he looked behind him, expecting to see another boy, or perhaps the neighborhood bully, looming above him. But no one was there!

"I can't explain what happened," he told me, almost 40 years later, "but I never went into that tower again. I saw in one of your books that the place was supposed to be haunted... and I wanted to tell you that it definitely is!"

To this day, the stories of the Shellabarger tower continue to be told. The reports linger, providing testimony to the fact that on some nights (especially those of a full moon) the bloodcurdling cries of those who perished in the fire can still be heard. Truth or fiction? You may want to find out for yourself one night as the full moon is in the sky above the streets of "haunted" Decatur!

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Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.