Demolishing a bathroom in this school led to a startling discovery
A plumber hadn’t expected to find much when he opened the air vent — it was just a means to reach the pipes hidden in the walls — but as he cracked it open, several leather squares fell out. Immediately he knew they were wallets. But how long had they been there? Who did they belong to, and why were they hidden in the air vent of abandoned school?
Revitalizing the community
The Centralia High School had been closed for years. Even though parts of the campus had fallen into disrepair and would require tons of work to restore, Minister Seth Baltzell of the City Hope Church thought it would make a perfect location for their new place of worship.
“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 told WJBD Radio. “So, we felt compelled and called to invest in this building that has been so important to us.” Little did he know, he’d uncover a priceless and fascinating part of the city’s past in the process.
Plans for the church
Many people in the community were saddened to see the old school fall into disrepair. Seth Baltzell himself was among the people who attended the high school years ago. In fact, he was excited about the prospect of finding some lost artifacts that would send him on a trip down memory lane. But he had no idea what he’d be in for…
Baltzell was most excited about the big plans he had for the new City Hope Church — and the old Centralia High School seemed the perfect place for it. “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.”
They needed to expand
Baltzell knew a thing or two about turning old schools in churches. In fact, the church in which they’d been worshiping for the last few years had once been a school. In those years, however, his church had grown exponentially.
To make room for all their new members, they needed more room. He weighed the options in his head and thought of all the pros and cons. After much thought and deliberation with the building’s current owners, the minister decided to move forward with the purchase. But this was only the beginning…
It required millions of dollars worth of repairs
Parts of the campus were relatively unscathed by years of degradation — the 1,800-seat auditorium would make a perfect place to hold sermons, and the gymnasium and cafeteria were a perfect fit for the minister’s vision. However, other areas were in terrible shape.
The contractors clearly had their work cut out for them — but the minister remained optimistic. As soon as the purchase was finalized, Seth Baltzell set about restoring the abandoned school. He knew it would be hard work — but it would prove to pay off in many unexpected ways.
Lots of history contained in these walls
Built-in 1936, Centralia High School and its notorious Trout Gym (home of the Orphans) has seen generations of students pass through its doors. When inside the school, one can’t help but feel a powerful sense of nostalgia or at least become swept up by the historical significance of the location.
Indeed, the walls contain their secrets — some of which we’ll never discover. However, in this instance, an unlikely and completely accidental discovery made in these very walls would provide answers to one family in particular.
Seth Baltzell couldn’t wait to see his vision come to fruition. Walking through the halls, he was transported back in time to when he attended classes many years ago. But as he looked at the rust, peeling paint, and crumbling walls, he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d gotten in over his head.
The bathrooms would need special attention. Unused and unmaintained for many years, extensive renovations were required to make them safe and sanitary enough to be used again. Little did he know, the plumber would discover hidden evidence of a crime committed years ago, and an emotional connection to the past for the family of the victim.
Demolition of the girl’s bathroom
The plumber set about his work — and there was a lot of work to do! He’d demolished about half of the bathroom before he got to the air vent where he’d uncover the wallets. “When he cut into the vent, just a whole bunch of wallets fell out,” Baltzell told KSDK News.
Naturally, the plumber was shocked and confused by the discovery. At first, it didn’t look like much, just scraps of old, faded leather. How could they have ended up in an air vent? He took a closer look…
Just what had he found?
As he stooped over to pick up the items, an overwhelming sense of surprise came over him. He realized they were all wallets — not only that, they must have been very, very old. He didn’t realize it yet, but this plumber had just stumbled upon a time capsule.
In any case, he thought the items might be important. Unsure of what he’d found, the man brought the items to Seth Baltzell right away. He hoped that the minister would be able to make sense of it.
The pastor was shocked
When the plumber first came to the minister, Seth didn’t quite understand what he was looking at, but quickly the realization began to set in. Seth Baltzell had hoped to find some nostalgic surprises in the halls of his old school, but this was something else entirely.
This was an incredible surprise — the school had been closed for over a decade. How had these wallets ended up in an air vent? There couldn’t be a reason someone would hide so many old wallets in an abandoned school, could there?
The lost wallets
There were 15 wallets in total. From the look of these faded wallets, they’d been hidden in the air vent for much longer than the school had been closed for. Perhaps the contents of the wallets might provide some clues about who they belonged to…
But when Seth Baltzell opened the wallets to look for clues, his jaw dropped in disbelief. This couldn’t be! Some of these items looked like they belonged in a museum. The items couldn’t be as old as he thought. The plot thickened…
This was only the beginning
The two men stood flabbergasted. They couldn’t believe what they were looking at — the wallets all contained no cash, but many contained family pictures and important documents. Who were these people in the photographs? The pair marveled at the discovery.
As they picked through the wallets, Seth Baltzell was overcome with a feeling of sadness, which quickly turned to determination — he wanted to connect these items to the people they belonged to. It would mark the beginning of an incredible journey.
The contents of the wallets
“While someone took the cash, they left behind all the pictures, information, and other documents,” Baltzell posted on Facebook. He hoped that someone would see these wallets and recognize them. It was a long shot, but perhaps someone would come forward with some information.
He examined the many old, faded photographs contained inside. He didn’t recognize any of the people, but the photographs looked like they held sentimental value. In addition to these photographs, there were school identification cards (which would prove invaluable later), postcards, letters, and love notes.
The lost photographs
Shuffling through the sepia-tinged photos, a sense of mystery and wonder enveloped them. Who were these people? Clearly, they meant a great deal to the people who owned these wallets. It only cemented Baltzell’s resolve to find the owner. But how could he possibly locate them after all these years?
There were pictures of children, older people, and young soldiers. Some of them even contained the dates they were taken. Incredibly, they would discover a clue that they would lead them to the owner of one of these wallets.
Their best hope for locating the owner was by reading the handwritten ID cards. Seth Baltzell quickly noticed that they all belonged to female students of Centralia High School in the mid-1940s. This explained many of the pictures of soldiers — these were young men that had gone off to fight in World War II!
This means the wallets had been hidden there around 75 years ago. Bewildered, Baltzell set about sorting the wallets by the ID cards — this way he’d have the best chance of connecting the wallets with their rightful owner.
The search began
It was a shot in the dark, but the pastor felt he had to try. He posted pictures of the wallets on Facebook along with a list of names. He knew the chances he’d find the owners of the wallets were slim. Still, stranger things have happened, right?
Fortunately, many people in the community seemed just as shocked and intrigued as he was. People began sharing and commenting on the post. It was a start, but would it be enough? Seth knew it was doubtful…
It was unlikely any of the owners would still be alive
Based on the advanced age of the belongings, the owners of any of the wallets had likely passed away. Baltzell just hoped he’d be able to get in contact with one of their relatives. To his surprise, the Facebook post began to go 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 began to feel hopeful that this story would have some kind of happy ending. Luckily, one of the relatives that reached out would be able to grant his wish.
How did they get there?
There was also the question of how 15 wallets ended up in an air vent. Clearly, they hadn’t all been left there by accident. Seth Baltzell came up with an apt theory — a thief must have used the air vent as a secret hiding spot to hide the evidence of their crimes.
It’s unlikely the thief had thought more about anything more than emptying the wallets of the cash and disposing of the evidence. But even they probably didn’t realize the items wouldn’t be found for three-quarters of a century. That’s quite a hiding place!
Betty June Sissom
The relatives of Betty June Sissom somehow stumbled across the post. Sissom had attended Centralia High School ages ago, but she’d since moved 89 miles away to the town of Chesterfield. Baltzell could hardly believe it. He knew he had to return the belongings to the 89-year-old woman.
It seemed at least one of the mysteries were solved — but how would Betty June Sissom react to the discovery, and who were the people in the photographs? As the news reporter handed her the wallet, she eagerly awaited Betty’s reaction. “I’m so excited,” Sissom said as she opened the plastic bag and retrieved the wallet.
The moment was televised
With such a once-in-a-lifetime story, the KSDK News knew they had to capture the moment. Seth Baltzell gave them the wallet to provide to Betty June Sissom. “So, the pastor wanted me to hand-deliver this to you the news reporter told Sissom.
Betty June could hardly contain her excitement. “I can’t believe after all these years…” she said. It had been so long, even she didn’t know what to expect as she opened the wallet with trembling fingers. She thumbed through the photographs and all the memories started rushing back.
“That’s me with a little boy by the name of Jimmy Kane,” Betty June Sissom said, pointing to a faded black and white photograph. “I had a crush on him and I must have been in about the third grade,” she explained to the delight of the news reporter.
“It’s quite a shock and it’s really exciting to see these pictures,” Sissom went on. Among the lost belongings was her lost social security card, photos of her crushes, her best friend, and even a World War II picture of her late brother. “I was just so glad to get that,” she told CNN, “because I don’t have a picture of him.”
Plenty more mysteries to be solved
Seth Baltzell was overjoyed to have been able to reunite Betty June Sissom with a piece of her past. However, there are 14 other wallets yet to find their owners. Unfortunately, so far, efforts to connect the other owners with their wallets have proved fruitless.
That being said, Seth Baltzell has said that relatives of some possible relatives of the names listed have come forward. Hopefully, in the years to come the owners — or at least their families — will be reunited with these time capsules. Only time will tell…
Perhaps the most adorable of the items found in one of the stolen wallets was a love note passed from a boy named Merle to a girl named Jeanie. The folded note contains a typed love poem and a handwritten note at the bottom, signed “Lovingly, Merle.”
Sadly, both Merle and Jane passed away some time ago. But there is a silver lining to this love story — the pair ended up marrying after they graduated high school. Who says puppy love can’t last?
But there is a darker side of this story as well…
Of all the mysteries that remain, there’s one we can be reasonably sure will never be solved (and it’s about 72 years past the statute of limitations anyway). Of course, we’d all like to know who stole the wallets. They must have been a clever and prolific thief to get away with stealing 15 wallets and having the foresight to stash the evidence away from sight.
In fact, the wallets were so well hidden that it took 75 years for them to be found! Hopefully the thief changed their ways and put their ambition toward something positive. But the stolen wallets weren’t the only things found in the abandoned school…
In the walls
The hidden wallets in the girl’s bathroom may have been the oldest items recovered, but there were plenty more time capsules found during the renovations. In the walls and lockers, Seth Baltzell and his team of contractors found many more items.
There were posters and flyers from old athletic events, students’ jerseys from all sports, and more love notes between high school sweethearts. Baltzell was even pleasantly surprised to find the high school ID of one of his close friends from high school.