Welcome to the exciting conclusion of “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County.” As MysteriousHeartland.com and MichaelKleen.com prepare for the upcoming release of the new edition of The Legend of Pemberton Hall, I thought it would be of interest to my readers to share with them the story of how I became fascinated with Coles County, Illinois. Join me for this three part article and take a journey through the recent past. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Not long after I predicted a dismal end to Ashmore Estates in the June 2006 issue of the Legends and Lore of Coles County, a man named Scott Kelley, who owned a local computer company, contacted me and informed me that he had plans to rent or even purchase the property. Scott first became interested in Ashmore Estates around ten years earlier. Scott, a longtime operator of haunted attractions including the local haunts at Elsinore Farm and Rockome Gardens, believed the institution would make an excellent haunted house. The Kelleys purchased the property from Arthur Colclasure in early August and immediately began renovating. To finance the project, they offered flashlight tours of the interior for five dollars a person, and volunteers helped clean up the property and the interior of the old almshouse.
That October, for the first time in its history, the doors of Ashmore Estates were opened to the general public, and people who had swapped stories about the building for over a decade lined up to get a look inside. On June 8, 2007, the Kelleys asked me to come and speak about the history and folklore of Ashmore Estates at an overnight event. That was my first real speaking engagement. I stayed for pizza and the movie White Noise, but I left before midnight. Thanks to Ashmore Estates and the Legends and Lore of Coles County, my reputation in the county grew. On October 22, 2007, I gave a presentation on local ghost stories at the Charleston Middle School and my picture made the front page of the Times-Courier the next day. When I first began to explore Coles County, I never thought the interest would take me that far, but there was even more to come.
By that year, I was a graduate student in the history department at Eastern Illinois University, writing a bi-weekly column for the Daily Eastern News, publishing the Legends and Lore of Illinois and my art & culture zine Black Oak Presents, and participating in Coles County Buy Local. In October, I sat on a panel for a discussion of illegal immigration and presented a paper on the Illinois Copperheads at the 2007 Conference on Illinois History in Springfield.
Coles County wasn’t through with me yet, however. Although I moved to Rockford in June 2008, Ashmore Estates had become something of a phenomenon in the ghost hunting community, so I found myself returning to Charleston to be interviewed for several documentaries. The first was the Booth Brother’s Children of the Grave 2, which wasn’t released on DVD until four years later. At the time, however, we were told it would come out the following summer. The Booth Brothers, Philip Adrian and Christopher Saint Booth, were known for television specials such as Spooked (2006), Children of the Grave (2007), and The Possessed (2009). The Times-Courier covered the story, as well as WCIA-3 News in Champaign.
That was the first time I had ever appeared on the local news. I was nervous, of course, and in an effort to say something profound I stuttered out these final remarks: “I think anything that doesn’t have to do with [President] Lincoln around Coles County—’cause it’s a big thing around here—any kind of other history is good for people to know about.” That segment aired on July 2, 2008. The other project for which I was interviewed was an episode of Hart Fisher’s American Horrors called “Fear in the Flatlands.” Directed by a St. Louis native named John Specht and produced by my friend Tyson Reed, the project proved to be controversial.
My next project involved getting my stories and research into print. For years I had wanted to write a book about haunted places, legends, and odd happenings from east-central Illinois and Coles County in particular. When I heard that Schiffer Books, a publisher based in Atglen, Pennsylvania was looking for submissions, I pitched an idea to them for a book titled Legends and Lore of the Ambraw River Valley. This book would have included ghost stories and even famous murder cases and crime sprees from Champaign down to Vincennes, but the good people at Schiffer did not believe that book appealed to a broad enough audience. They rejected it with the caveat that they might consider the idea in the future. In the meantime, I wrote stand-alone articles on Pemberton Hall and Ashmore Estates that I offered in PDF format on my website. For two Octobers, I wandered the streets of Charleston and Mattoon, flyering apartment doors, coffee shops, restaurants, and dorms, advertising “The Legend of Pemberton Hall.” That particular article, as of this writing, has been downloaded over 2,200 times.
It wasn’t until I moved to Rockford that a representative at Schiffer Books contacted me, wondering if I wanted to write a book about ghost stories in the entire state. That was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and so I set to work. I made sure that Paranormal Illinois (as it came to be called) included three chapters on places in Coles County: Pemberton Hall, Ashmore Estates, and Airtight Bridge, and I made sure that my readers would not be left in the dark about the history of those places, as I had been back when I first arrived in the county.
Finally, in 2011, I was asked to appear in an episode of Ghost Adventures. After years of trying to get Zak, Nick, and Aaron to come investigate their building, the Kelleys succeeded and they began filming near the end of April. Although I disagreed with the way the Ghost Adventures crew claimed Ashmore Estates was infested by demons, I did appreciate the opportunity. The film crew used actors from the Kelley’s haunted house to reenact scenes from Ashmore Estates’ days as the Coles County Poor Farm almshouse.
It has been more than six summers since I left Charleston, but I felt like my work in the county would remain incomplete until I released a final edition of Tales of Coles County, Illinois. That “10th anniversary edition,” which included the Legends and Lore of Coles County, as well as a few other tidbits, had an early release in the autumn of 2013. Over a decade of writing about the folklore of this fascinating place, it has been my goal to help others see it the way I do, as a very special place to live. Ultimately, I hope my readers will realize that, contrary to the belief of every comedian who ever visited EIU and made a joke about there being “nothing but cornfields,” Coles County is a lot more interesting that it might first appear.
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