Seth Baltzell was excited to begin converting an old abandoned school building into a new church. But an unbelievable discovery in the bathroom air vent soon led him down an entirely unexpected path.
Centralia High School
Since its establishment, Centralia High School has been a thriving institution of education. Located in Centralia, Illinois, in the US, it has served Centralia's community of teenagers for many years.
With the Orphans and Annies as their mascots, the school's successful sports team has always been a rallying point for the community to bond over. However, when the school's historical building closed its doors and relocated to another point in the city, many wondered what would be for the site.
A Place For Worship
Since its closure, the school grounds had become a site of disarray. While most community members walked past it daily and thought nothing of the site, Minister Seth Baltzell recognized its potential to be something more. He decided to turn it into the City Hope Church's new place of worship.
Seth knew the difficulties ahead, understanding that much work would need to be done to bring the grounds back to life. But this didn't put him off; on the contrary, it motivated him further, and he was up for the challenge. At this point, the school bared no resemblance to a functioning school, let alone a church.
With the site in this condition, it all came down to an important choice. "For us, we had a choice of either investing time and resources to something new or bringing something back to life that's really important and valuable to all of us," Baltzell explained to WJBD Radio.
"So, we felt compelled and called to invest in this building that has been so important to us," he continued. Rather than completely destroying the site and building something new in its place, it was time to breathe a new life into this abandoned building. Little did they know what they would uncover in the process.
Many members of the community were sad to see the school go. Yes, the building's structure would remain, but many memories were attached to this site. Seth himself attended the high school years before, and like the rest, he hoped they would uncover some nostalgic artifacts in the renovation process.
But more than the discoveries, Seth was excited about his vision for the new church. "Our church really is about bringing hope and restoration back to our city and the region," Baltzell told WJBD Radio. "Everything from feeding programs, a gym where kids can come and find a safe, inviting, and friendly place to spend time."
Not the First Time
Interestingly, this was not the first time Seth had undertaken a project such as this. The church building they had used for the past years had also started as a school before being converted into a place of worship. Since then, the congregation had grown significantly - and it was time to upsize.
Due to the increasing demand, they had been forced to turn people away on numerous occasions due to lack of space. They needed more space to accommodate all these people and welcome anyone interested. After weighing up all the pros and cons, Seth decided to purchase the building. Things were just getting started...
As mentioned, the abandoned school was in a bad way. Over the years, it had degraded considerably. And it was hard to imagine it ever being safe for visitors to enter again. But Seth was sure of his vision. He would use the 1800-seat auditorium for his public sermons and the gymnasium and cafeteria for other community events.
However, the rest of the school held less potential at this stage. And the contractors would have to do some major construction to turn it into a functional space. Once the building was officially in his name, Seth laid out the renovation plans. It would all pay off eventually, in more ways than he could have imagined.
If Walls Could Talk
Established in 1936, Centralia High School has a rich history, with thousands of students walking through its corridors. The Trout Gym, the loyal home base of the Orphans, was a huge part of the team's legacy. Stepping foot inside the school, the church renovation team was instantly overwhelmed by the nostalgic senses.
Thinking of all the students that had laughed, cried, and even fallen in love within those walls, the walls of this historic building had been witness to some of its former students' most memorable life moments. In this staggering case, the walls would unknowingly shed light on an age-old family mystery.
The Work Begins
Minister Baltzell was overwhelmed with excitement when the construction work officially began. Day after day, he drove to the school to watch his vision come to life. After getting a closer look at the crumbling walls and excessive rust, he worried he had gotten into an impossible situation.
He examined the bathrooms and understood they would need further special attention. After all this time, they had become unsafe and unsanitary, and extensive construction would be required to make them usable. He could never have guessed what the plumber would find in the process of overhauling the room.
An Unexpected Discovery
The plumber got to work on the major bathroom renovation project as quickly as possible. After demolishing half the bathroom, it was time to address the air vent. It was here he discovered the mysterious wallets. "When he cut into the vent, just a whole bunch of wallets fell out," Baltzell told KSDK News.
The plumber was, of course, incredibly surprised by what had fallen in front of him. After countless years on the job, he had never seen anything like this before. Although he initially thought it was just old pieces of torn-up leather, upon closer inspection, he realized they were wallets. How did they end up there?
After overcoming his initial shock, the plumber gathered up the pile of wallets and examined them carefully. Soon, it was clear to him that they were not only wallets belonging to people but also remarkably old. He didn't know then that he had mistakenly uncovered a time capsule of sorts.
Regardless of what he had gleaned from the evidence in front of him, he knew he needed to immediately hand them over to the project leader, Seth Baltzell. He understood that these wallets were likely valuable and sentimental to someone. He hoped Seth would know what to do.
At first, Seth had little understanding of what was being handed to him. Looking down at the leather pieces in his hands, he could not make sense of what they were. Then after a few suspenseful moments, Seth began to process the findings. He had predicted some nostalgic discoveries, but this was more than he had imagined.
A way greater surprise than he had bargained for, he instantly began to question how these wallets had ended up in this bathroom's air vent. There was likely a reasonable explanation to all this, but after all these years, he knew it might be difficult to ever find out the truth. He was certainly going to try, though...
Laying out the fifteen wallets on a table in front of him, Seth got to work, investigating each item and searching for hidden clues. Their faded and tattered condition suggested they had been stored in the air vent from a time before the school had closed. They needed to look inside to find out more...
Looking through the contents of the wallets, Seth could not believe his eyes. With all the personal details inside, it was like something out of a museum. Was it really possible these items were as old as they seemed? He hoped the varying information would help him discover to who they belonged.
Making It Personal
Seth and the plumber were amazed by what was there on the table. These cash sections of these wallets may have all been empty, but otherwise, they were stuffed full of family photographs and other important documentation such as identification papers. They were desperate to find out who these people were.
As they continued to search the wallets' contents, Seth experienced a range of emotions. Emotional and sad over the lost memories, he found himself as determined as ever to reconnect these items with their owners. He had no idea what he was getting himself in for and the life-changing journey that lay ahead.
As an avid social media user, Seth was familiar with the power of online communities. After hearing about the numerous occasions they had helped people to solve mysteries just like this, he had an idea. Posting a photo of the wallets to his Facebook page, he asked his contacts for their assistance.
"While someone took the cash, they left behind all the pictures, information, and other documents," he wrote in the photo's caption. Although he knew it was a long shot, he desperately hoped someone might recognize the wallets and reach out with some insightful information.
Seth could not stop looking at the old photographs, closely and repeatedly examining them in the hope of extracting some more telling details. As he stared at the black and white faces in the images, he was unable to recognize any of them. He estimated they were from long before the time he attended the school.
Even without knowing the owners or the people in the photos, it was glaringly apparent that these documents and images were of high sentimental value to someone out there. As he continued to search through the wallets, he found school ID cards, postcards, letters, and even love notes.
The People In The Photos
Who were these sepia-tinged people staring back at him? Looking into their eyes, Seth allowed himself to imagine the lives they had lived. There was so much mystery surrounding their backstories, and his curiosity had gotten the best of him. He needed to find the owners.
Among the pictures were children, elderly people, and young, brave soldiers heading off to war. Many of the photographs had dates printed on the back of them, indicating when exactly they were taken. Within a few minutes, they had found a clue that would send them on a direct path to one of the owners.
Checking The ID's
Seth and the plumber had a strong sense about where it was best to start in their detective campaign and identify the owners. Collecting together the handwritten ID cards, it struck them that all the wallets belonged to female Centralia students in the mid-1940s.
This information indicated that the young soldiers in the photographs were all the young men sent off to battle in World War II! Dating these wallets to around 75 years ago, Batzell had found his first big clue. He then began to arrange the wallets by their ID cards. He was making some real progress.
Trying His Luck
With the wallets all in order, Seth decided to take his search back to Facebook. This time, however, he had taken it up a level. He had names now, so he hoped this would increase his chances of finding the owners. Yes, it was a shot in the dark, but he had it to give it his best shot.
Immediately, his followers were intrigued by the wallet discovery and wanted answers as desperately as he did. They quickly got to work, spreading and commenting on the post in an attempt to spread the news of the findings as widely and as quickly as possible. Would the post reach the right people?
A Promising Lead
As exciting as the hype was, Seth remained realistic with himself about the odds of success. The belongings were incredibly old, and the chances that their owners were still alive were slim. Still, he held out in the hopes of getting in contact with a wallet-owner relative. Soon, the post had gone viral.
"It had been shared 1,000 times, then 2,000 and 3,000 times, and people began commenting — and lots of people have reached out," Baltzell told KSDK News. He now allowed himself to dream of the story's happy ending, a reunion between a wallet and its owner. Then he received a life-changing call...
Exploring a New Theory
Putting the owner hunt to the side for a moment, one key component to this mystery was how the fifteen wallets ended up in the school's bathroom air vent in the first place. It was clearly no accident or coincidence; someone had intentionally put them there. Seth had come up with an origin theory.
He believed that a school thief had been using the air vent to hide the incriminating evidence. Grabbing the wallets for the sole reason of stashing the cash, they needed somewhere to throw the wallets after doing so. They likely believed they would never be found there - it was the air vent, after all!
Enter Betty June
Back to the Facebook campaign - it had reached the homepage of Betty June Sissom's relative. After seeing her name on the list, they excitedly reached out to Seth and informed him of her whereabouts. Since her time at Centralia, she had moved away to Chesterfield. Baltzell could not wait to return the wallet to her!
One of the fifteen mysteries had been solved, and everyone involved was excited about the impending reunion. How would the 89-year-old woman react? Would she be able to identify the rest of the people in the photographs? There were so many questions to be answered.
A Televised Moment
A moment as monumental as this, Seth knew it should be captured on camera for the world to witness. He reached out to KSDK News to alert them of the historical and mysterious tale, and they immediately wanted access to the exclusive footage. The reunion would be televised shortly after filming.
The cameras rolled as the news reporter walked up to Betty's home with the wallet. Everyone waited with bated breath to see how she would respond. "I'm so excited," she exclaimed as she opened the plastic bag of her belongings. Then it was time for the wallet to be handed over.
Seth decided it would be best for him to give the wallet to the news channel for them to deliver to her live on camera. "So, the pastor wanted me to hand-deliver this to you," the news reporter said to Sissom as she passed her the damaged red leather wallet. Betty June was unable to control her emotions.
"I can't believe after all these years…" she said excitedly after 75 years apart. She had been away from her old wallet for so long that she likely didn't even remember what was in it. Her fingers shook as she opened it up. As she looked through silently, all the memories started to flood back.
All The Memories
"That's me with a little boy by the name of Jimmy Kane," Betty June Sissom noted as she examined the faded black and white photograph. "I had a crush on him and must have been in about the third grade," she laughed. "It's quite a shock, and it's really exciting to see these pictures."
Opening up her bag of belongings, she excitedly discovered the rest of her missing personal items. Her social security card, photos of her best friend, and a photo of her brother during the war. "I was just so glad to get that because I don't have a picture of him," she told CNN.
"I can't imagine somebody stole all those wallets and put them behind the toilet in a space I didn't even know was there," Sissom said in bewilderment to CNN. Most of all, though, she was feeling incredibly grateful to Seth for his determined efforts to find the owners of the wallet.
Talking to CNN about this special reunion, she told the outlet how she wished for the rest of her classmates to experience this joy. "I'm sure the other people whose wallets they found - hopefully they're still alive - would be as excited as I am," Sissom said.
Now that one of the wallets had been reunited with its owner, fourteen more wallets remained on Seth's table. He was determined to solve all of their mysterious origins and track down all of their owners, even if it was just a relative. While nothing has been successful so far, some hopeful leads are in the works.
Seth Baltzell mentioned that he had been contacted by some people who claim to be the long-lost relatives of those named on the list. He hoped he'd eventually be able to bring these people their wallets or even provide their surviving family members with something through which they could reconnect with their lost ones.
A Love Story
Of all the personal items discovered in the wallets, one item stood at the forefront of Seth's mind. It was the most heartfelt and meaningful and perfectly represented the monumental nature of this reunion project. It was a love note written by a boy named Merle.
Dedicated to his crush, Jeanie, he had crafted a poem, accompanying it with a heartfelt note signed, "Lovingly, Merle." Although both had since passed, Seth was excited to learn they had married after leaving school. However, amongst all the emotion and surprise, it's easy to forget the more sinister side of this story…
It should be remembered that there was someone who had actively stolen these wallets from these innocent people. One can't hear this story without wondering who had been the one to take away these precious sentimental items from their owners in this cruel act.
Sadly, it is unlikely that the stealing criminal will ever be found or even identified. Even if the person in question is brought forward, little can be done in retribution because it is around 72 years past the statute of limitations! Considering the wallets took over 75 years to be found, we'd assume it was someone pretty smart.
Other Uncovered Relics
As the renovation project continued to make headway, Seth repeatedly found nostalgic items hidden throughout the school's campus. While none of these discoveries were as exciting or old as the air-vent-hidden wallets, the contractors identified a range of objects in the walls and lockers.
The renovation team, and the rest of the community, were elated to find the different items from various periods in the school's history. They uncovered posters and flyers from sports events, student jerseys, and some more love notes written by hopeless-in-love teenagers. Baltzell even found his old schoolmate's ID!
Uniting The Community
What had started out as an ambitious community renovation project had quickly taken an unexpected turn. Without intention, it had become a meaningful project with the goal of reuniting people with the sentimental items they had long considered gone.
Seth had hoped from the start that the new church renovation would help to bring the community closer through its new religious services and community events. This unexpected outcome had done more for the people of Centralia than he could have ever imagined...