More than 100 years ago, a winged specter terrified the residents of Van Meter, Iowa, and now television crews, documentarians, paranormal experts, and festival-goers are renewing interest in whether or not it exists. In fact, the Van Meter Visitor Festival will return this year, after a brief hiatus because of the pandemic last year.
Called the Van Meter Visitor, the pterodactyl-looking creature first appeared in the small rural town in 1903, according to legend.
Over the course of five nights in September and October that year, several of Van Meter’s most upstanding citizens reported seeing a half-human, half-animal creature with enormous bat wings fly above the city.
Multiple people reported seeing the nearly nine-foot tall creature. It flew overhead and jumped from rooftop to rooftop at incredible speeds, releasing a horrendous “memory erasing” stench. All the while, it shot bolts of light from a horn on its forehead. Bullets, the legend says, didn’t hurt it. One of the townspeople, Clarence Dunn, was an eyewitness to the creature’s visits and took a plaster cast of a three-toed footprint it left behind.
On the first night, witnesses said it was flying across building tops. The next evening it was spotted by the town doctor and a bank cashier. On the third night, a man said he saw it perched atop a telephone pole, while another said it looked like a monster hopping like a kangaroo, and a third, the local high school teacher, likened it to a devil.
In an attempt to get rid of the beast, the townsfolk followed it to an abandoned coal mine near an old brickyard, where they heard noises.
“Presently the noise opened up again, as though Satan and a regiment of imps were coming forth for battle,” read an article from the Des Moines Daily News from October 3, 1903.
Emerging from the cave were two creatures, one larger and one smaller. In a flash of light, and leaving behind an odor that left those in attendance stunned, reports said, the two creatures flew away to escape the crowd. The next morning, however, they returned, and found the town’s men had gathered with weapons to get rid of them.
“The reception they received would have sunk the Spanish fleet, but aside from unearthly noise and peculiar odor they did not seem to mind it, but slowly descended the shaft of the old mine,” the article said.
Once they descended into the mine, the men got to work, sealing the creatures inside the mine forever.
Or so the story goes. That morning, a legend was born – one that continues to this day.
Chad Lewis, noted paranormal researcher and author, wrote about the incident with co-authors Noah Voss and Kevin Lee Nelson in 2013 in The Van Meter Visitor (A True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown). People still report seeing the creature, he said.
In the 1980s, a man who had just moved to the area (and hadn’t heard about the legend) was walking near the coal mine and reportedly saw a 5-foot long bat-like creature fly over his head, Lewis said. Then in the 2000s, another man and his family were driving home to Van Meter when they spotted what they said was a giant bird-like creature dead on the side of the road. When the man went back to investigate, the creature was gone.
Around 2006, Lewis said, a pastor waiting for a friend in Colfax, Iowa, spotted what he thought was a dragon in the sky. When he returned home, he googled “Iowa dragon,” and came across a picture of what he had spotted – the Van Meter Visitor. Later, in 2014, a couple camping in Iowa City reported an encounter with a giant bird.
And finally, in 2020, in Boone, Iowa, Lewis said, someone reported seeing another giant bird, claiming, “When it flapped its huge wings, all I could see was light, dark, light dark. And it was a huge whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, that I heard.”
Lewis said that when he and his co-authors came to investigate the creature, it wasn’t a big deal, but that now the draw of the creature has grown.
“We are having the festival this year… on Friday, September 24 and Saturday, September 25,” Rachel Backstrom, a member of the festival organizing committee said in an email interview.
“The festival usually brings in somewhere between 300-500 people. The legend seems to get more popular every year and I think we will have a nice turnout this year. It is probably one of the bigger tourist events for Van Meter but Van Meter doesn’t have a huge tourism industry. The Iowa Veterans Cemetery is probably the town’s biggest draw.”
The legend has a mixed reception in the town, she said.
“There are many people who think it is a fun and interesting legend and enjoy the town’s history,” she said. “Others think it was a complete hoax. It is definitely not as big as Mothman. The legend had been mostly forgotten until Chad, Kevin and Noah started researching their book.”
Since the book’s release and the beginning of the festival, she said, the legend has gained even more ground outside of Van Meter.
“As the legend gains in popularity, we do get more media interest,” she said. “We’ve had two TV shows do episodes on the Visitor and a couple documentary crews. One of the documentaries, 1903, is debuting (during the festival)… I know there have also been a handful of other inquiries by filmmakers over the last year or two, but no other film crews that I know of. Likely, many projects were pushed back due to the Covid pandemic.”
Lewis said he was part of an investigation into the mine shaft filmed for a TV show back in May. His non-disclosure agreement prevents him from discussing it further, however.
Still, Lewis said, his research into the creature has left him unsure of what exactly happened over those five nights in 1903.
“I can honestly say that after poring over countless records, interviewing residents, unearthing local history and touring the sites of the original encounters, I am still as puzzled today as the people of Van Meter were back in 1903,” Lewis wrote in his book, a sentiment he said he still feels today.
“When I first began researching this case, I was convinced that it would turn out to be nothing more than some sort of twisted hoax, yet as I made my way through months of research, the idea of the monster being some sort of prank or joke quickly eroded away.”
For Lewis, not knowing may be the best result.
“In today’s world, where we crave answers for everything and increasingly disregard gray areas in pursuit of black and white certainties, the space for mystery and the unexplained is perpetually shrinking,” he said.
“I have found peace in knowing that I may never discover what happened in Van Meter during that fateful week of 1903, and perhaps I am not meant to. Perhaps the answer is not nearly as important as the act of seeking it out.”