Finally though, over the last couple of years, the Alton Antique District has revived. The Alton Antique Association has been re-started and life has started to return to Broadway and the surrounding blocks.
The ‘heyday” of antiques in Alton has returned once more and while many things have changed in this district – some things have stayed the same. In fact, according to some of the local antique merchants, the spirits of yesterday still linger in many of the shops and buildings. Not only as a reminder of days gone by, but as ghostly reflections of things still to come!
THE CRACKER FACTORY
Born in Many, Louisiana, Sam came to Alton in 1969 after serving five years in the United States Marine Corps. He owned a furniture company for a time before purchasing the Cracker Factory building and he made frequent trips to Demark and England in search of antiques for his shop. He also modeled professionally and became a community leader in the city. His support for historic landmarks gained him membership in the Alton Area Landmarks Association and he became one of those responsible for keeping the Berm Highway from being built through Riverside Park. Sadly, Sam Thames passed away in April 1994 following a lengthy bout with pancreatic cancer.
When I first moved to Alton, one of the locations in the city that I heard of as being haunted was the old Cracker Factory, which Sam had owned for many years. While I could never track down anything concrete about it, I was told that the ghost here was probably Sam himself. “If anyone would be haunting that building,” an acquaintance explained, “it would be Sam, because he loved the place so much.”
As it turns out though, if Sam does remain behind here – he does not walk in this building alone.
In March 1865, the proprietor of what had been known as one of the largest bakeries in St. Louis, Kendall’s Steam Bakery, purchased a plot in Alton at the corner of Easton and Second Streets with the purpose of building a new bakery on the site. The land had previously been occupied by the First Baptist Church, which had been built there in 1832. Rumor had it that the church had once been a station on the Underground Railroad but the legend died after the place was destroyed by fire some time after its construction.
H.N. Kendall, the new owner of the property, was well-known in the St. Louis area and he promised a variety of innovations to the new bakery that had not been seen in Alton before. In 1866, Kendall’s Cracker Factory opened at the site. The three-story building (four including the basement), with its unusual Italianate windows on the Easton Street side, became a destination spot in the community after Kendall launched his bakery. Offering a retail store on the main floor, all of the baking was done in the basement using five large, brick ovens that held metal racks. They were so massive that two men could stand side by side in each with their arms outstretched and still not touch the edges. According to old records, the bakery was capable of producing as many as 125-150 barrels of crackers every day, using 50 or more barrels of flour. Three of the original ovens can still be seen in the basement today and signs of scorching and burns are still visible on some of the surrounding wood beams.
By the turn of the last century though, Kendall’s Cracker Factory was gone and the location was better known as the McPike Building. It was owned by Henry McPike and the building housed a number of businesses, including offices for Dr. G. Taphorn and Curdie, Challcombe & Co., a store owned by Joseph Krug, a saloon owned by John Ehret and others. In February 1904, a fire broke out in the building that caused around $8,000 in damage. The fire began mysteriously in the unoccupied basement beneath Krug’s store, which was strange since there was no open fire of any kind in the place and the building was heated by steam. Whatever the source of the fire, it broke out around 9:00 in the evening and an alarm was immediately sounded. By the time firefighters arrived though, the smoke pouring out of the cellar windows was so thick that they could not get through it. To make matters worse, the doors to several of the businesses were locked and the firemen could not get inside. Eventually, the fire broke through the floor beneath Ehret’s saloon, Krug’s store and the Curdie, Challcombe & Co. office but did little damage above the building’s second floor.
With the source of the fire being in an area that the firefighters could not initially reach, it was difficult to combat. A number of volunteers came to try and help and when Joseph Krug arrived, a large window at the front of his store was shattered so that he could retrieve his record books and several items that could not be replaced. Several men went in to try and save the papers and records in the office of James Smith, the township tax collector. At the time of the fire, the Mutual Protective League was initiating three new candidates in a secret ceremony on the third floor but they managed to make it out through the clouds of smoke that suffocated the stairway. A newspaper report of the fire also mentioned the meeting of the Jolly Bachelors that was taking place in the building as well. They were startled when the fire alarm was sounded to learn that their own building was burning. According to the report “the Bachelors retreated in disorder as if they had been attacked by a lot of leap year girls.”
The fire was under control within a couple of hours and was put out by midnight. No cause for the fire was ever determined and those in the building who were insured soon repaired the damage they suffered and were back in business again.
Between the time of the fire and 1972, when Sam Thames purchased the building, the Cracker Factory went through a number of different owners and always served as retail and antique shops, as well as offices and even a small restaurant for a time. When Sam opened his antique store in the building, he moved into the basement and became known all over the area for his excellent selection and assortment of unusual objects. According to friends, Sam was the first to report the presence of a haunting in the building. It has been said that he frequently spoke of hearing footsteps in his store, especially going up and down the main staircase that led in from Broadway. He never thought much of it though and figured that any “additional occupants” in the building were more than welcome. Some maintain that after Sam passed away, he joined the unseen presences in the building and continues his attachment to the place as the years have gone by.
In the fall of 2002, Julie Rossi and her fiancé, Gary Basden, began looking for a place to open an antique store in Alton. When they had the chance to see the basement of the Cracker Factory, Julie fell in love with the place and knew that she had found a home for their new store, Riverbend Treasures. The basement had been largely unoccupied since Sam Thames had died and so they began the hard work of renovating the space to suit their needs. They spent about two months on the project before finally opening the store in November of that same year.
During the weeks before they opened, Gary had a chance to talk to some of the other occupants of the building and learned that they believed the Cracker Factory was haunted. As a non-believer in ghosts, he listened politely to their stories but never really thought much more about it. The other occupants, who have office space on an upper floor, told Gary that they were often visited by a resident spirit. He did not manifest himself in the phantom footsteps that Sam Thames heard but rather put in appearances as a full-fledged apparition. They described him as having long, dark hair, a straight nose and wearing black pants, a vest and a white shirt with old-fashioned, billowy sleeves. The specter was never threatening but usually just appeared for a few moments and then vanished. On one occasion, he was seen staring at their copy machine as it churned out pages, as though fascinated by the process. And one other thing, they added, was that he had a tendency to whistle.
The stories were mostly forgotten by Gary until one day a short time later when he and Julie were getting the store ready to open. “I was working in one area and Gary was working in another, out of sight,” Julie told me, “and for some reason, I started whistling.”
Gary immediately came out of the back and asked her what that sound had been. When Julie asked him what he was talking about, he asked her if she had been whistling. When she replied that she had been, Julie noticed that Gary looked relieved. “I forgot to tell you,” he told her. “They told me that the ghost upstairs likes to whistle.” Julie still maintains that for someone who said he did not believe in ghosts, that he certainly came out of the back room quickly to see what was going on.
But the strange happenings in the building would soon turn out not to be false alarms. As Julie prepared to open the shop for her first day of business, she carefully double-checked to make sure that the doors were locked before she left the night before. She had brand new “open” signs that had been placed in the windows and as she checked to make sure that the doors were locked, she also made sure that the signs read that she was “closed”. She was looking forward to turning them around the next morning. However, someone beat her to it! When she came in the next morning, both of the signs, on both the front and side doors, had been turned so that they read “open”. No one else had been in the building since Julie had left. The only explanation seemed to be that “someone” in the place was happy that she had opened a new antique store in the basement.
This was the first incident to occur but it would not be the last. One day that first winter, Julie came in one morning and discovered that the thermostat for the furnace had been turned up all of the way. She was sure that she had turned it all of the way down the night before, since heating the space was so expensive, and even if she had not, she would not have turned it up that high. She called Gary to make sure that he had not done it, but he had not been in the shop at all.
As time passed, other small occurrences took place. Items moved about by themselves, footsteps were heard on the staircase (and Julie reported this before she ever found out that Sam Thames had talked about the same thing) and on occasion, she would catch a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. A couple of different times, she saw fleeting figures that she described as being a man and also a little child in corners of the store.
One evening, one of the ghosts even spoke to her. She was working late one evening and was waiting for some vendors to arrive with some new items for a booth that they have in the store. Gary had left to go pick up some items that they had purchased at an auction and so Julie was left in the building alone. The vendors were running a little late and Julie left both doors open for them when they arrived. As she was working in the side room, she heard the sound of someone whistling. Thinking that the vendors had arrived, she walked out to greet them but there was no one there. “I just assumed that it was my imagination,” she told me, “and not thinking anything of it, I went back to work.”
A few minutes later, she heard a voice call out to her. “Hello, Julie,” it cried. This time, sure that the vendors had actually arrived, she once again walked out into the main room. Once again though, the place was empty. At that, Julie announced out loud that she had had enough of the game and nothing else bothered her the rest of the evening.
For the most part, Julie believes that the ghosts that are in the building are harmless and are notorious pranksters. The changing signs and turning thermostats have been just a couple of their tricks. In addition, they have been known to turn lights on and off, hide things and to change the station on the radios that have been placed around the store. “We have three radios,” Julie explained,” but we keep them all turned to the same jazz station. On some mornings when I have come in, I will find the radios have all been set to some strange station that we would never listen to. I don’t know how this happens but it’s really bizarre.”
Around the time of this writing, Julie bought an old pie safe at an auction and had it displayed in the store. In the bottom racks, she placed three antique pie tins that she was also offering for sale. Inexplicably, when Julie comes into the store in the morning, she will often find the tins to be moved around, switched in position, turned upside-down or outside of the pie safe. There is no explanation for how they could have gotten this way and I have tried to fiddle with the rack myself (trying to get the pie tins to move) but I had no luck with it. Is this an example of Julie’s prankster ghosts at work – or a specter attached to the pie safe itself?
Julie and Sam Thames have not been the only people to experience odd happenings in the basement. Many customers who have come in, including attendees on the History & Hauntings Tours, have claimed weird encounters inside of the old bricks ovens that line one side of the store. These encounters range widely between the smell of something burning (which then vanishes), cold chills, eerie sensations and even feeling as though they have been touched or their clothing pulled on. I never tell anyone what to expect when they go into the building, but rather allow them to look around the place for themselves.
In June 2003, a woman named Barbara Crain came on the tour with her husband and daughter. She and her husband, Charles, were looking around the store and were standing in the center oven when she got a strange feeling. “I mentioned to Charles that I felt sort of uncomfortable there and after we went outside and were standing there for a couple minutes, I realized why I felt so uncomfortable,” she explained to me later. “I am by no means claustrophobic and being inside of small areas has never bothered me in the least. However, when I was in that center oven, I felt as though the walls were closing in on me and that was what was causing that uncomfortable feeling.”
And while Barbara is not alone in her strange experience with the ovens, I am perplexed as to what might be causing this to happen. There is nothing in the history of the bakery, especially in connection to the ovens, that should be causing people to have strange reactions in them – but yet they are. This is just one of the unsolved mysteries of this fascinating historical structure.
Unfortunately, Riverbend Treasures is no longer located in this building but even you do see a business with an "open sign", be sure to stop in and check the place out. It's likely that you'll find some unique items on the shelves and you may even hear a ghost story or two. Many people in Alton are willing to share their stories of hauntings and restless ghosts. The spirits are just a part of doing business here and you just never know when you might get a chance to encounter one of the resident haunts for yourself.
© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.