Apocalypse Town: The Doomsday Disciples of Stelle, Illinois
In the early 1970s, people in the rural farming community of Cabery, Illinois, looked on with curiosity at what was happening in the cornfields surrounding their town. Ranch-style houses began popping up where stalks once grew, and began spreading out far enough to form street blocks. Plastic and paper factories were being erected. Well-dressed men and women orbited the development. The newcomers' intentions were mysterious, leading locals to begin speculating that their new neighbors might be part of a religious cult, or even laboring to build spaceships. Some longtime residents were so disturbed by the new arrivals that they’d drive by and fire weapons in the vicinity, hoping to scare them off.
But the people of Stelle, as the town came to be known (the word is German for "the place"), wouldn’t be so easily rattled. They believed the end of the world was looming, and they were preparing accordingly. Community friction would pale in comparison to the earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions that would herald the dawning of a new civilization. As the rest of the world scrambled for resources, Stelle would manage its own water, sewage, and communications lines before relocating to a Pacific island—a sprawling collection of Adams and Eves who would survive the end of the world, which they believed would arrive on May 5, 2000.
The date was given to them by their leader, Richard Kieninger, a former engineer from Chicago who had prophesied the apocalypse and set them on a path of readiness. He predicted Stelle would grow to 10,000 inhabitants in just a few years.
He was off by about 9800 people.
Short, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, Kieninger was no one’s idea of a charismatic conductor of a new civilization. He even rejected his role at times, insisting he never sought out such an important function as society's savior. Instead, he claimed, it had been bestowed upon him.
In 1963, Kieninger wrote a book titled The Ultimate Frontier, a quasi-autobiography published under the pen name Eklal Kueshana, in which he described being visited as a youth by a “Brotherhood” of scientists and philosophers who instructed him to prepare for pending calamities by erecting a self-reliant society that observed the Golden Rule. For good measure, they branded his thigh with their symbol. (Kieninger would later decline to show journalists proof of his marking.)
Readers of The Ultimate Frontier, though few in number, embraced Kieninger’s message. By 1973, he and several others had pooled $169,000 to buy 320 acres of farmland in rural Illinois, roughly 85 miles south of Chicago. The flat, remote area seemed like an ideal place to wait out the pending chaos; Kieninger claimed he was told by the Brotherhood to focus his efforts there.
Residential housing and a water treatment plant were among the first construction jobs. Next came schools, sewage treatment facilities, and phone lines. (Stelle would eventually fight a nine-year court battle to have their own independently-operated telephone service separated from the major carriers.) Would-be residents idled in adjacent neighborhoods, waiting for an opportunity to join the community.
Space wasn’t the sole determining factor of Stelle citizenship. Kieninger didn’t actively recruit anyone: He had a pool of interested parties who had read his book, then sifted through them to see if they met the requirements for his budding utopia. Residents had to be at least 21 years old with some background in business, as Stelle would have to generate its own economy through entrepreneurial efforts. He turned away people he considered to be of less than sound psychological mind. He also required tithing of 10 percent, with the funds fueling the continued growth of the town. Kieninger said he accepted only about 25 percent of those who applied to become residents of Stelle.
Once accepted, Stelle occupants were expected to follow the behavioral mandates laid out in Kieninger’s book. There would be no drinking or intoxicants of any kind; smoking would be prohibited if people nearby found it unpleasant; men were required to shave and wear business attire even if they labored in construction, switching to their work clothes on site; women could not wear pants. Mothers were instructed not to work, as raising a child was considered of paramount importance; they were expected to offer one-on-one instruction for the first three years of a child's schooling.
In return, Stelle's citizens embraced one another. Doors were kept unlocked and lost $20 bills were pinned to community bulletin boards. Children flourished, reading at age 3 and writing by age 4.
As the 1970s wore on, Stelle blossomed, growing to house more than 200 residents and erecting solar-paneled buildings that would allow its citizens to thrive if electric services shut down in the wake of a collapsed society. Kieninger told curious journalists that Stelle would soon have its own self-contained shops and services, with residents walking into stores and putting items on credit to cut down on paper currency. Work was also moving along on airships that would relocate the community's entire population to a Pacific island when the natural disasters began.
There was just one problem: While Stelle was a united community, their collective faith in Kieninger was starting to wane. Lacking the kind of fiery charisma seen in other coercive cult leaders, Kieninger held little sway over the residents he once enticed to the area. When arguments broke out over the future of Stelle, his community did what any self-sufficient neighborhood would do when faced with a prophet who couldn’t deliver any prophecies: They kicked him out.
Kieninger’s departure from Stelle in 1975 was never explained in full. Some attribute it to a power struggle that broke out between Kieninger and his own wife, who remained in Stelle when Kieninger left to start a new community, Adelphi, in Texas. He returned to Stelle on a monthly basis for meetings as a kind of remote soothsayer before parting ways with them for good in 1986.
In the interim, residents of Stelle had begun to abandon some of the tenets that had brought them there in the first place. When 1976 passed without Kieninger’s predicted economic strife, faith in him was shaken. Citizens balked at being deemed survivalists or perceived as weird by their fellow Ford County residents. Building airships to transport them to new land was going nowhere. Why, people wondered, couldn’t they just exist as a cooperative community without a looming sense of dread?
So the behavioral requirements were largely dropped. There would be no more tithing. Instead, Stelle would focus its efforts on being a green community, expanding its use of solar energy, and using a 21-foot wind turbine for its water treatment plant.
By 1997, only a third of Stelle's 100 or so occupants still believed in Kieninger’s teachings; another third were reformed; the rest lived there simply because they liked it.
Today, Stelle is still on the map and promoting its eco-friendly habits. There are cooperative groups for gardening, tool-sharing, and meal preparation. The community lays claim to a number of U.S. firsts, including the first solar-powered telephone company and the first solar-powered wireless internet service. The further they get from Kieninger’s predicted world demise on May 5, 2000, the more Stelle has distanced itself from its former identity as a doomsday sect.
That’s fine by Kieninger, who never seemed totally comfortable with his appointed role as a prophet. After years had passed without calamity, he told a local newspaper that heralding the end of the world wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
"I’m getting kind of burned out trying to put a precise time on these things," he said.