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6 May 2009


Ghost hunters raise funds for preservation

TONY REID, (Decatur) Herald & Review

The Chautauqua Auditorium in Shelbyville needs about $1.7 million to restore it to its 1903 splendor and prevent leaks and dry rot from becoming the grand old structure's final act.

So who ya gonna call?

One answer has turned out to be a bunch of ghost hunters who relish things that go bump in the night and who have friends who study cryptozoology, which is the field of Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and so on.

They are gathering at the Chautauqua on Sept. 19 for "Chautauqua-Con 2009," a one-day conference to explore and celebrate the quest for the strange and scary that will be used as a fundraiser for the building.

It won't be cheap to get in tickets go for $40, renting booth space will cost another $15 but the organizers say visitors are due to get a lot of ethereal bang for their buck. The event will run from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the huge round auditorium, which measures 150 feet across with perfect acoustics, and the conference will feature at least 10 speakers.

The lineup includes some of the leading names in the twilight world of the bizarre. Michael Kleen, for example, has written books with titles like "Legends and Lore of Illinois: Case Files" and "Six Tales of Terror," and his work ranges over almost every aspect of the paranormal.

Chris Dedman (that really is his name) had his first paranormal experience after being shot in the head with an errant firework as a boy and has been probing the supernatural ever since. His talk will include a presentation on the darker side of ghost hunting and detail something very nasty that happened in Quincy in 2008.

Other speakers have backgrounds in the area of spiritual mediums, hunting Big Foot and even the development of computer systems designed to probe for evidence of a haunting.

It's a heady lineup, and the organizers, such as Shelbyville paranormal researcher Brian Hendrian, are hoping for a good response for both the Chautauqua's sake and the wider effort to explain that paranormal research is a serious issue.

No one knows if the Chautauqua Auditorium is haunted, but a 106-year history throws up some interesting possibilities. Built at the turn-of-the-century height of the Chautauqua movement, it played host to once-popular traveling road shows featuring everything from opera to variety acts and hosted fire and thunder Biblical speakers such as William Jennings Bryan and temperance crusader Carrie Nation.

When the Chautauqua movement faded, the places built to house it faded away, too, and now the Shelbyville structure, built like a giant drum with no interior columns supporting its vast, cathedral-like roof, is the last of its kind left in the nation. The building's owner, the city of Shelbyville, appointed a Chautauqua Auditorium Preservation Committee to raise the $1.7 million needed to save it, and the committee has welcomed the assistance of the paranormal investigators.

"Now, I may or may not believe what they believe, but I think what they are doing for us is great," said Wayne Gray, chairman of the preservation committee. "We've got to find a tremendous amount of money and we need donations, a lot of them."

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