Every day at noon an air siren blasts the calm in downtown Kempton, Illinois, population 235. The horn is tested in part to serve as warning for approaching tornadoes, but David Hatcher Childress says there's no need for that. "Towns nearby here have been hit by tornadoes," he explains. "Kempton never has. In fact there's kind of a legend that Kempton will never be hit by a tornado. People claim that Kempton is like a vortex area or like a power point."
Kempton, situated amid cornfields about 60 miles south of Chicago, attracts a lot of pilgrims for a town of its size. And whether or not they're looking to bathe in some mysterious earth energy or stumble across interdimensional portals, they inevitably visit Childress at one of his several businesses, among them the Adventures Unlimited Bookstore at the corner of Main and First and Sgt. Pepper's Bar & Grill across the street. The other businesses along Main Street--the post office, a branch of Vermillion Valley Bank, Meier Oil Service, the grain silo--fade into the background next to the arresting murals on the sides of Childress's buildings. The bookstore's is a giant moonlit landscape of the Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, and an Easter Island moai. The bar's a knockoff of the cover of the Beatles record in which the curly-headed, bespectacled Childress stands amid the Blues Brothers, the Tasmanian Devil, Indiana Jones, and Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla.
Childress also owns three houses in town, one of which is a bed-and-breakfast, but it's the space next to the bookstore that serves as the office and warehouse for his biggest enterprise, Adventures Unlimited Press, which since 1985 has published more than 200 titles on such subjects as UFOs, secret societies, suppressed technology, cryptozoology, conspiracy theory, and "alternative archaeology." The last is the one dearest to Childress, who has no degree and refers to himself as a "rogue archaeologist."
Childress has written 15 of Adventure Unlimited's books, most notably those in his Lost Cities series, which draw on a lifetime of globe-trotting to support his theories that civilization is much older than we think and that many ancient cultures were connected. These claims are roundly dismissed by mainstream archaeologists, but professional derision doesn't stop producers of radio and TV, from Art Bell to Fox to NBC, from booking Childress as an expert on everything from Atlantis to the Knights Templar. It probably helps.
"Your mainstream archaeology students, they don't like guys like me very much," Childress says. "If you go to school and become an archaeologist, you're gonna spend your summers dusting off pieces of broken pottery with a paintbrush. It's the exact opposite of some Indiana Jones running out of the jungle finding a lost temple of treasure. To them that is total fantasy. It makes 'em mad, actually. I couldn't do that for a day. When I'm at archaeological sites and see a bunch of broken pottery I hardly even look at it. I mean, I want giant stone walls in the jungle." Has he discovered any? He's run across a few things he wasn't expecting, he says, but "nothing that National Geographic was gonna do a cover story on." He's better known for measuring documented structures by his own yardstick.
Childress's latest project is a movie studio he's trying to start in Kempton. He's teamed up with Steve Zagata, a Chicago videographer, and they're planning their first feature, "The Dupont Monster," a mockumentary based on the recent reported bigfoot sightings in downstate Seneca and Funk's Grove (the subject of a story in the May 19 Reader). "Part of the movie is like The Blair Witch Project," he says. "There's a lot of supernatural stuff and the question of whether somebody is pretending to be Bigfoot. The plot of our movie is kind of a Scooby-Doo story."
It's difficult to divine how sincerely Childress believes the ideas he circulates, or to verify the influence he claims he's had. One moment he speaks like a true believer, the next like a shrewd businessman. But either way, he's a lot of fun to listen to.
Childress grew up in Colorado and Montana. His father, an attorney, regularly took the family on international vacations--Paris, Mexico--and camping trips in the Rockies. Childress went to the University of Montana in 1975 to study archaeology, comparative religion, and Mandarin, but dropped out the next year to take a job teaching English in Taiwan. A fan of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who tried (mostly without success) to prove a connection between Eastern and Western ancient peoples by sailing a small raft from Peru to Polynesia, his main ambition was to travel to other exotic locales.
After six months of teaching he set off for Nepal, where he trekked around the Himalayas for a year, then moved on through India, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. In Israel he worked on a kibbutz for six months; then he landed a catering job in an oil camp in Sudan. "Suddenly I went from being totally broke in the middle of Africa to having 10,000 bucks," he says. After ten months he quit to wander the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. He smuggled a bottle of whiskey into Saudi Arabia, chewed qat in Yemen, and scored with a girl named Fushia in Somalia. He rifled through Idi Amin's looted house in Uganda, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, stumbled into a bar full of drunken guerrillas in Zimbabwe, hitched across the Kalahari, and sold camping equipment in Cape Town, all adventures he would go on to recount in his first book.
"By this time my parents were starting to get a little pissed off, because instead of coming home I went back to India," he says. "My mom came [over] to make sure I wasn't some heroin addict in the back alleys of Bombay." He continued to Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, backpacked through China for several months, and then hit Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
After five and half years Childress returned to the United States, though not to settle down. "There's a point where you say to yourself, 'Well, what is it I want to do?' Well, I wanted to write books and travel around the world. Be my own boss."
While driving around the U.S. he began working on A Hitchhiker's Guide to Africa and Arabia, which he sold to Chicago Review Press. Though you wouldn't know it from reading the straightforward hippie narrative, Childress viewed his travels through the lens of Heyerdahl and Swiss writer Erich von Daniken, who in Chariots of the Gods proposed that the "gods" of ancient civilizations were actually extraterrestrial visitors who created Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the like.
But neither of those figures made Childress's first bibliography, and what did is perhaps more telling. Childress was in Kenya when a Peace Corps volunteer gave him a copy of The Ultimate Frontier by Eklal Kueshana. Kueshana was a pseudonym for Richard Kieninger--a Chicago native and former student of the Lemurian Fellowship, a nondenominational philosophical school in Ramona, California. The group's members were proponents of a belief system that drew upon the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Christ as revealed by secret societies called the Brotherhoods.
In The Ultimate Frontier, published in 1963, Kieninger appropriated Lemurian lesson plans and other teachings he maintained were disclosed to him by the Brotherhoods. Among the revelations was the idea that human civilization had begun 78,000 years ago, on a lost Pacific continent called Mu, or Lemuria, which sank beneath the waves 26,000 years ago. (The name derives from a theoretical land bridge posited by a 19th-century geologist to explain similarities between lemurs in India and Madagascar.) The book predicted that Armageddon would begin in 1999 and that the earth would be destroyed on May 5, 2000. After that, Kieninger wrote, he was to establish a "Kingdom of God" on an island that would rise out of the Pacific. But first he was to build a "self-sufficient and industrially strong" community in the Chicago area to prepare the kingdom's future inhabitants.
Though Kieninger was accused of plagiarism and banished by the Lemurian Fellowship, The Ultimate Frontier would eventually sell more than a quarter million copies. He returned to Chicago with his wife and moved into a large house in Rogers Park, where he began to attract adherents. He called his followers the Stelle Group, after one of the founders of the Lemurian Fellowship.
In 1971 the Stelle Group purchased land in Ford County, just a few miles east of Kempton. Over the next few years it built streets, sewage and water treatment facilities, utilities, a factory, a school, and houses arranged suburban style, many employing solar and wind energy. Over the years thousands of people passed through Stelle, and though individuals owned their own homes and some commuted to Chicago for work, it took on cultlike aspects. "If you challenged Richard he would find a way to eliminate you," says former Stelle resident Walter Cox. "Richard would undermine that person's credibility in very vicious ways. And that person very often found him- or herself ostracized and marginalized and left."
To folks in the staid farming community surrounding it, Cox says, Stelle seemed downright bizarre. It couldn't have helped that in 1975 Kieninger was ousted from the group for engaging in affairs with young women in the community, some of them married. He eventually regained some influence and was accepted back, only to be driven out again in 1985 for the same reason.
In 1983, in the midst of this turmoil, Childress made his way to Stelle, where he rented a room, finished up his first book, and got to work on a second. He says Chicago Review Press wasn't interested in the "New Agey" aspects he was introducing into his writing, so he decided to start Adventures Unlimited, beginning with The Lost Cities of China, Central Asia & India, in which he augmented tales of his travels with esoterica about lost cities, secret societies, and ancient civilizations. Legends of Atlantis and tales of other ancient advanced civilizations--including Lemuria--have dominated his writings ever since.
Atlantis first appeared in Plato's dialogues, and for most people it remains nothing more than a myth reinterpreted many times over. But for Childress, physical evidence of the sunken continent is everywhere--in fact, he sees it in many of the places von Daniken saw evidence of alien colonization. "It's like, yeah, if there was civilization 15,000 years ago, if you have to give it a name, well, let's call it Atlantis, 'cause that's what the Greeks did," he says. "Somebody finds Atlantis every year. Suddenly they'll find something, whether it be a sunken ruin somewhere off an island that blew up or some oddball megalithic remains on an island in Korea, and suddenly they go, 'Whoa! This has got to be Atlantis!' And that's why Atlantis has been placed all over the world."
At Stelle, Childress was also introduced to the work of Nikola Tesla, when members of the community built a prototype of a perpetual energy machine he designed. (It didn't work.) "He's the greatest inventor. Who. Ever. Lived," says Childress, widening his eyes, shaking his head, and raising his voice like a preacher. "But most people have never heard of him. He is A. Suppressed. Person." Tesla, who once worked for Thomas Edison but later became his bitter rival, is a controversial figure; his contributions to electrical engineering, physics, radio, robotics, and wireless communication are undisputed, but in later years he pursued projects regarded as outlandish, including the supposed development of a "death ray" that could take down 10,000 airplanes from 250 miles away.
"The interesting thing with Stelle was that their thing was not aliens, although people have often had that misconception," says Childress. "Their thing was more like Tesla, antigravity, like there's an energy conspiracy, the oil companies are in control of the world, there's different technology. This is where I suddenly found out about suppressed technology."
Childress based himself at Stelle while continuing to travel, and by 1985, when Adventures Unlimited published its second title, The Anti-Gravity Handbook, he'd rented an old house in Kempton with the intention of buying it. He built Adventures Unlimited's catalog by taking on titles from other small publishers and republishing out-of-print travelogues like In Secret Tibet and Darkness Over Tibet by Theodore Illion, a German writer who claimed to have moved through Tibet in the 1930s disguised as a monk.
"For many years when a new book came out I would load up my car and drive to California," says Childress. "I would leave here with just a few bucks in my pocket and a tank of gas, and I would have friends to go to, or camp out in churchyards, and I would have to sell books to make it. I would show up at these independent, funky bookstores totally unannounced and I'd go, 'Hi, can I show you . . . ?' I would turn around immediately and countersign the check and cash it at their own register and take the $45 they were giving me and go to a gas station and get some gas."
Before Richard Kieninger was banished from Stelle the second time, Childress organized two group tours with him, one to visit ruins in Peru and Bolivia and another to Egypt. Childress would show the participants around, then continue his travels after they went home. In this way he continued to gather material and experiences for his Lost Cities series, publishing volumes on South America, Lemuria and the Pacific, ancient Europe, and the Mediterranean. "They're kind of like On the Road meets Atlantis," he says. "I hitchhike, get drunk, and get laid, and people try to kill me, and it's all true. And I talk about weird stuff."
As the series became more well-known, Childress became a regular visitor on Art Bell's Coast to Coast AM, and in the early 90s he began to appear frequently on a Fox TV show called Sightings, talking about Atlantis, cataclysms, and extraterrestrial archaeology on Mars. In 1992 Childress and two partners launched a magazine, World Explorer, so named because one partner didn't want it to sound "too fringy." But they wouldn't publish a story "about some guy's bicycle trip from Alaska to Panama," Childress says. "He would have to be abducted by aliens, find a sunken city, and be turned into a shaman by taking drugs with witch doctors and battling zombies along the way." In one early issue Childress wrote about a tribe in Papua New Guinea that he says declared him a cargo cult god. Another article was headlined "Living Pterodactyls Haunt Our Skies."
Childress began offering memberships to an associated club "dedicated to exploration, discovery, understanding, and preservation of the mysteries of man and nature." Though a membership was essentially a discounted subscription with swag, Childress bought a second house next to his first and called it the World Explorers Clubhouse, inviting members to stay there and make use of his library of several thousand volumes.
By this time he was leading tourists on several expeditions a year to points all over the globe. Many of the rooms in the clubhouse and the B and B have themes--the Atlantis room, the China room, the South Pacific room--and are crammed with books, artwork, and souvenirs from his journeys. One tiny room in the B and B is devoted to vintage space toys; when his friends' kids visit he makes sure to keep them out.
Childress had a hit in 1993 with The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla, a collection of the inventor's patents supplemented by alternative histories connecting them to secret cities in South American jungles, flying saucers, and electricity in ancient Egypt. He says he sold 50,000 copies of the book, which would eventually become his company's all-time best seller. "Suddenly we were cashing giant checks every month," he says.
It was good timing. That was the year The X-Files premiered, and the Adventures Unlimited catalog was filled with what Childress calls "real life X-Files." Business took off; he opened the bookstore in 1998 and the next year bought both the bed-and-breakfast house and the bar. "In some ways I like to think that I helped fuel the 90s UFO craze," he says. "In the 80s UFOs had become kind of a nontopic. You couldn't sell a UFO book to some publishers."
Many of the books in Childress's catalog argue that UFOs are man-made rather than of extraterrestrial origin. "Suddenly it was like, 'They're being made by the government in Nevada,' blah, blah, blah . . .'Antigravity! Suppressed technology! Nikola Tesla!' Not to say that that's really exactly what's going on, but that's definitely what these books are about," he says. "And they sold." Childress has never met X-Files creator Chris Carter but he's sure the books he's published were an influence. "You've got to get your material from someplace," he says. "We weren't the only source of material like this out there, but there weren't many." Childress, Steamshovel Press magazine publisher Kenn Thomas (motto: "All Conspiracy. No Theory"), Greg Bishop (Wake Up Down There!), and the late Jim Keith (Black Helicopters Over America) all believed they were the inspiration for the Lone Gunmen. "It was obvious to all of us," Childress says.
He sees his influence in other corners of popular culture as well--like the South Park episode in which Chef, voiced by Isaac Hayes, is brainwashed by a group of pedophiles called the Super Adventurers Club. It was widely viewed as a spoof of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, who was a member of the better-known Explorers Club. But Childress is convinced it's a parody of the World Explorers Club and Adventures Unlimited Press--"except for the part about going around buggering little kids."
Like any good conspiracy theory, Childress's claims of influence contain a kernel of truth. Last year when the authors of the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail sued Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown for copyright infringement, Brown cited (among others) Adventures Unlimited's reprint of Charles G. Addison's 1842 text The History of the Knights Templar, which includes a lengthy introduction by Childress, as an important influence on the megaseller. Brown's book and the subsequent movie have caused his business to spike much the way The X-Files did. According to Childress, sales in Adventures Unlimited's "Holy Grail & Templar Studies" category have exceeded expectations by as many as 20,000 copies, including a special printing for Barnes and Noble.
Childress says he doesn't read customer reviews of his books on Amazon.com, which often complain of poor editing and typos even when they're otherwise positive. "Do you want to torture yourself with a bunch of people shooting you down?" he asks. Many of these critics also complain that he spins implausible theories with little or no supporting evidence. "Our books, well, they're fringey," he says. But "they have some credibility. You read the antigravity books--there're patents in there, scientific papers, newspaper articles, things that you can't deny. Whether there are underground bases and tunnels? There simply are underground bases and tunnels. They exist. There are hollowed mountains. Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado is a hollowed-out mountain. The crux of the matter is not whether these things are true but to what extent? Like mind control. Does mind control exist? Fuck yeah. But to what extent?"
Last year a writer named Jason Colavito, a frequent contributor to the Skeptic magazine, published The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. In it he argues that alternative histories about extraterrestrials visiting the earth in ancient times stem from the stories of early-20th-century horror-fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. Colavito devotes seven pages to Childress, linking him to Erich von Daniken and extraterrestrial-genesis theories, excoriating the sources of Childress's theories about ancient atomic weapons, and scoffing at a story he wrote about a Smithsonian cover-up of ancient Egyptian artifacts found in the Grand Canyon.
"He writes things like, 'Assuming the above story is true . . .' or 'If we accept Lemurian Fellowship stories as fact . . .,'" says Colavito. "He uses an awful lot of weasel words. Things like 'seems,' 'might,' 'could have been.' And he does that for a very important reason. That way if ever any of this stuff were conclusively shown to be wrong--'Well, I never said that, did I? I just said it could have been.' And that's a characteristic shared by most of the writers in the field."
"I can't believe some of the stuff I read about myself," says Childress, who maintains that Colavito doesn't get him at all. True, he's a Lovecraft fan--he has a poster of the writer's loathsome alien god-monster, Cthulhu, hanging in his game room. But though he's dabbled in his theories about aliens--one of his books is titled Extraterrestrial Archaeology--unlike von Daniken, he says, he's not a "gods-from-outer-space guy." Rather, "my whole thing is that this stuff is from this planet. These giant ruins aren't built by extraterrestrials. I say they were built by humans. Mankind and civilization goes back 50,000 years or more. What else can I assume is inaccurate in this book? This guy just plain doesn't do his research."
Some of Childress's publications have landed him in legal trouble. In 1996 he published a bit of pseudonymous samizdat about the Kennedy assassination called The Torbitt Document, which mentions a man named Layton Martens, a New Orleans jazz musician and ancillary figure in assassination lore. The book accuses Martens of arms smuggling, stating he was a "second-generation Russian exile Solidarist agent." Martens, who's since died, sued Childress, but the case was tossed before it went anywhere because the statute of limitations had run out. "Once we won the lawsuit we could joke about getting sucked into the Kennedy assassination," says Childress.
In 1998 Adventures Unlimited published a 48-year-old UCLA master's thesis titled "Flying Saucers: Fact or Fiction," by a man named DeWayne B. Johnson. When Johnson, by then a retired journalism professor, got word his work had been published without permission, he sued. Childress pulled the book and settled out of court for a sum tidy enough to allow the professor to recarpet his house.
On any given day you can find Jerry Smith either working the register at Adventures Unlimited Bookstore or shipping orders from the warehouse next door. Smith is the author of HAARP: The Ultimate Weapon of the Conspiracy, which, having sold some 20,000 copies, usually hovers around the number five spot among the press's best sellers. The book is about the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, an array of 180 radio antennas in the Alaskan wilderness "aimed at studying the properties and behavior of the ionosphere, with particular emphasis on being able to understand and use it to enhance communications and surveillance systems for both civilian and defense purposes," according to its Web site. Smith's book examines HAARP's alleged nefarious capabilities as a weapon of mass destruction, including disrupting worldwide communications, burning holes in the atmosphere, changing the direction of the jet stream, and mass mind control.
At Childress's invitation, Smith moved to Kempton from Reno, initially taking up residence in the World Explorers Clubhouse to finish his second book, Weather Warfare: The Military's Plan to Draft Mother Nature, which is due out this month. In it he introduces a theory that HAARP played a role in the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia.
Smith, much more than Childress, seems to know the precise location of every book and DVD in the warehouse. Among the boxes and shelves stacked with titles, from Childress's The Time Travel Handbook to William Lyne's Occult Science Dictatorship to Jim Keith's Saucers of the Illuminati, are certain books and authors beneath his scorn. He calls David Icke, the British conspiracy theorist who argues that the world is ruled by a secret race of reptile men, a "lunatic."
While his employees may guffaw at the mere mention of Icke, Childress has no problem selling his books. Adventures Unlimited is pretty much an open tent among fringe writers, and he publishes many he disagrees with. Childress says the nonjudgmental atmosphere he's created is what draws these authors to the "Ancient Science and Modern Secrets" conferences he hosts twice a year. His houses (and his bar and bookstore) fill up with friends and authors, and motels from Pontiac to Kankakee are booked by the hundred or so fans who pay up to $120 to mingle with them for the weekend.
Regular customers make pilgrimages to Kempton from as far away as Ohio, Saint Louis, Minnesota, and Canada. One afternoon this summer a middle-aged customer in the bookstore greeted Childress as if he'd walked in on a red carpet. "I call him the Steven Spielberg of the book world," said the man, who drives to the bookstore once a month from near the Wisconsin border.
"I've single-handedly rejuvenated this little town," says Childress, who employs some ten people among all his businesses, in addition to his wife, Jennifer Bolm, who handles the finances and helps proofread and edit.
At least one other permanent resident of Kempton moved there because of Adventurers Unlimited. E.P. Grondine is a self-published author who came to Kempton a few years ago, after Childress agreed to distribute his book Man and Impact in the Americas, about the effects of asteroids and comets on the evolution of the first inhabitants of the western hemisphere. "David Hatcher Childress is the most successful publisher of fringe literature in the United States," Grondine writes in an e-mail. "And I wanted to learn how he did it." He bought a house in Kempton "for about one year's rent in Chicago" and got to work on a second book. But lately he and Childress haven't been getting along. Grondine says he's now working on a piece about Childress's involvement with Kieninger and other members of the Stelle group. Childress wouldn't speak on the record about Grondine.
Today nearly 30 Adventures Unlimited books have been translated into languages including Czech, Bulgarian, Korean, Turkish, Italian, French, and Spanish. And there are bookstores affiliated with Adventures Unlimited in New Mexico, Arizona, Liverpool, and New Zealand.
Four years ago Steve Zagata took one of Childress's tours to Egypt, where they made a short documentary. Now he and Childress are producing a travel show based on the Lost Cities series. Last year they filmed in Egypt, Peru, Bolivia, and Costa Rica and accumulated footage for six programs on ancient technology that they hope to sell to the Travel or Sci-Fi channels.
This fall they'll begin shooting the bigfoot movie, with actors (Childress asked me a couple times if I know any) portraying members of the World Explorers Club hunting the beast. Jerry Smith will play Professor Wexler, Adventures Unlimited's Indiana Jones-like mascot. Childress says they're also planning to shoot a series of man-on-the-street interviews in Chicago. "We'll say, 'Yeah what do you think of Bigfoot? Is Bigfoot a problem? Did Bigfoot steal your baby?'" They have ideas for a couple other movies they'll shoot in Arizona, where Childress has another house. One is a western about search for lost treasure, the other a Mad Max-type adventure with vampires and gargoyles called "Mexico Death Race."
I asked a manager at the Vermillion Valley Bank and Kempton mayor Dean Tharp what they thought of Childress and his impact on the town, but neither would say anything about him for the record. When I asked Childress what he thinks his neighbors think, he said he gets along with them fine for the most part. "I still hear the odd gripe around here," he says. "And my response to that is 'Yeah, would they prefer to see a bunch of derelict boarded-up buildings instead?'"
Besides, he's not leaving anytime soon. Civilization is due for a leveling, and Kempton will be a good place to ride it out.
"I often talk about it as a little oasis out in the country," he says. "I'm happy that the economy is going great. California is our number one market, so yeah, I don't want to see Los Angeles destroyed in an earthquake. But I have to admit I kind of think it will happen one day. I'm hoping later than sooner mostly. When the shit hits the fan like that you don't want to be in a major metropolitan area."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.