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
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
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
back to Haunted Decatur!
Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.