Faulty light leads to discovery of forgotten room, American Legion artifacts in Peru

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PERU, Indiana — Beth Rhoads said there have been rumors and whispering for years in Peru about a secret room hidden inside the building owned by American Legion Post 14.

It's a rumor Rhoads began investigating around three years ago, when she moved her business, Eileen & Friends Craft Mall, into the second floor of the building at 33 E. 6th St., after the post mostly stopped using the building for its headquarters.

"When I first moved the business in, everybody swamped me with the question, 'Have you found the secret room?'" she told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1rvrU5e ). "We hunted for it. Believe me. When you hear an urban legend like that, you hunt."

Recently, Rhoads said, they found it.

A maintenance man stumbled across the small door hidden above the drop-down ceiling that was put in place decades ago.

A light had gone out, and he was tracing an electrical wire to find the source, Rhoads said. As he followed it along, the wire led to a door he'd never seen before, tucked away in the original ceiling.

He called Rhoads and told her the news.

"He said, 'I found the secret room.' I said, 'You found what? I'm on my way.'"

The two climbed a 15-foot ladder through the drop ceiling, shimmied through the small, square door and discovered a loft holding a trove of the American Legion post's history dating back to the 1940s.

There were boxes of archival records of previous Legion members from 1942 to 1945. There were old pictures, including a large landscape photo of hundreds of soldiers lined up in a field with the date 1917 published on the front. There were old POW flags and scrapbooks.

Maybe the craziest finds of all, though, were a tank shell, a small night-drift signal made by Triumph Explosives Inc. in 1943, and what appeared to be a rocket launcher from 1944.

Rhoads said they didn't waste much time transporting the historical treasures out of the hidden loft and doing an inventory of them. In total, she said they found around 100 items.

"We were just laughing the whole time," she said. "It was great."

Rhoads said she'd spent the last three years scouring the more than 10,000-square-foot building, trying to find the room. They did come across a hidden nook and a closet under a stairwell, but no hidden room.

She said they never thought about looking in the ceiling. In the end, it was just dumb luck that led them to the hidden loft.

John Hilgeman, an 81-year-old Navy veteran who's been a Legion member since the 1950s, said he'd always heard the rumors about the secret room in their building, but he didn't think they were true.

"People talked about a secret room in there," he said. "I never knew what they were talking about. I never knew anything about it."

But George Denny, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who currently serves as the Legion commander, said the loft wasn't so much a secret room. It was more of just a forgotten one.

The Peru post was chartered in 1920, one year after the national American Legion was founded. In 1949, the Legion moved into its current building.

Denny said it was likely the case that Legion officers packed some of their old records and other items in the loft during the move and forgot about them when the drop-down ceiling was installed.

"I wasn't aware of (the room) as much as some other people," he said. "We were told there was stuff up there, but we never looked into it because it'd been up there forever."

Now that the room and its contents have been rediscovered, Rhoads said she wants to make sure it isn't forgotten again.

She said she plans to create a display area in her store so people can view the historical items.

"I believe in the old adage: If you don't remember your history, you're bound to repeat it," Rhoads said. "We're trying to preserve some of the Legion's history, because this is a military community, and we figure we need to preserve our military past."

It's an especially meaningful tribute for Rhoads, who has two sons serving in the Army.

Navy veteran Hilgeman said he looked through some of the items after they were discovered. He said a lot of the stuff was covered in thick dust after sitting for more than a half-century in the darkness of the loft.

But once it's cleaned and on display, he said it will provide an interesting glimpse into the Legion's past.

"It's always nice to get more pieces of our history," he said.

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