The girls’ restroom at school isn’t exactly the most appropriate place for a fully grown man to find himself. At the very least, he’s likely to raise a few eyebrows or even find himself in hot water with the police. But in the case of one man from Illinois, his visit to a female bathroom was just part of his day job. As a plumber, this guy had been tasked with helping to demolish the toilets in an old school building. And yet during this very mundane task, he made an extraordinary discovery.
As the plumber worked on removing one of the old toilets, he cracked open an air vent on the wall behind it. And suddenly, a pile of debris came tumbling out. But as he examined the items, he realized that they weren’t your average detritus and rubble. In fact, the workman’s find would go onto make headlines across the country – and reveal a remarkable 70-year-long story.
You see, while the objects that the plumber pulled out of the wall likely aren’t worth much in cash, they do hold significant sentimental value. Untouched for decades, the stash of artifacts acts as a time capsule for a bygone era. And one item in particular has a special place in the heart of its owner, who was missing it for around 70 years. So you can imagine her delight when she was reunited with her lost treasure.
What’s more, even the objects that remain unclaimed offer tantalizing glimpses into contemporary history. But it wasn’t gold, jewels or money that the plumber found behind the old school’s bathroom toilet. No, it was an entirely different kind of treasure. Specifically, he unearthed a bunch of old wallets, which all belonged to schoolgirls in the 1940s. And the search is on to find their rightful owners.
Now, the bathroom in question used to belong to an institute called Centralia High School in Illinois. Back in the 1940s, teenagers used to walk its halls, going about their daily routines. But the place is now empty and has fallen into disrepair, though some people still have a use for it.
Take Seth Baltzell, for instance, who is the pastor for the City Hope Church (CHC). On his social media page, he reveals that his life goal is “to change the world; that’s all.” And as it turns out, the derelict Centralia High School was part of that plan, so Baltzell made inquiries about its ownership.
The price must have been right for Baltzell, because at the beginning of 2019 CHC purchased the old school building. And in the congregation’s hands, Centralia High School was going to give back to the area in a different way. To be specific, Baltzell planned to make it the site of CHC’s community outreach center and church.
But in order to realize his dream, Baltzell needed to hire workers to fix the place up and help make renovations. So, he called in the plumber – who remains anonymous – to look into making changes to the old school’s bathrooms. However, the project came with a huge surprise.
“[The plumber] had demoed out part of the old girls’ bathroom here on the second floor in this old building,” Baltzell told KSDK News in July 2019. But little did the pastor know that his workman would unearth something that sounds like it came out of a mystery novel. Yes, the walls were hiding a surprising secret: a stash of retro treasures.
You see, when the plumber removed a vent behind one of the toilets, he uncovered the hiding place of a collection of objects. Presumably, the small items had been pressing on the air duct from the other side of the grate. And so when the craftsman removed it, the contents simply came spilling out. But the discovery also brought with it a host of unanswered questions.
“When [the plumber] cut into the vent, just a whole bunch of old wallets fell out,” Baltzell recounted. And while it must have come as quite a shock to the workman, the discovery got Baltzell all fired up. You see, he had actually been hoping to experience an exciting event during the renovation.
In July 2019 Baltzell explained to CNN, “We’ve been working on this building for six months. I’ve been kind of waiting for that really cool thing that nobody’s seen in the last 75 or 100 years to pop out.” And as luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened. The hidden stash of wallets tumbled out of the wall, fulfilling the pastor’s hope for a thrilling twist.
Humorously, the pastor added, “I think I’ve watched one too many episodes of CSI and stuff. So I like the mystery and the intrigue of it all.” Yes, the plumber had inadvertently granted Baltzell’s wish when he’d stumbled across the collection of wallets once owned by Centralia High School students. So, what exactly was in the hidden stash?
Intriguingly, the plumber didn’t just find one or two lost wallets. He uncovered a total of 15 in fact – all nestled behind the duct where they’d apparently remained for over half a century. What’s more, the purses’ contents were quite remarkable. In June 2019 Baltzell detailed the findings in a Facebook post. He said, “While someone took the cash, they left behind all the pictures, information and other documents.” And the paperwork was rather revealing.
First off, the student IDs that were inside the wallets provided names and ages for all of their owners. And each and every one of them apparently belonged to a female pupil who had attended Centralia High School during the mid-1940s. Baltzell explained, “We tried to categorize them by the different names.”
As for the wallets themselves, most of them were apparently fashioned from leather and had become faded or tattered with age. Many contained personal items, too, which give fascinating glimpses into life back when they were lost. Baltzell told KSDK News, “The war was ending, you know, so there’s lots of things, [such as] pictures, from soldiers.” And owing to the lack of valuables inside the purses, the pastor made an intriguing guess as to how they ended up in the wall.
In July 2019 Baltzell told the Miami Herald, “All the pictures seemed to be from 1945 and 1946. Best we can tell is that someone was stealing wallets and then ditched them behind the toilets in a heat vent.” And there the collection apparently lay for decades – until the 2019 CHC renovations.
Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, we’re unlikely to ever identify the alleged thief. And it could be tough to find any of the former owners of the wallets, too. After all, the items are roughly 75 years old, and a lot can happen in that time. The owners could have moved states, emigrated to other countries or even passed away.
However, Baltzell wasn’t going to give up that easy. And so he started to formulate a plan. The pastor explained to CNN, “Most likely, the person that’s owned the wallet is either at the end of their lifespan or no longer living. My best chance was to reconnect with one of their relatives.”
With a plan in his mind, Baltzell turned to social media in the hopes of tracing the potential owners of the wallets – or at least someone who knew them. Plus, he released a list of student ID names in the post and a picture of the wallets. But even with such clear identification, obstacles still hindered the search.
In Baltzell’s June 2019 Facebook post, he said, “I’m gonna throw some names in here of what appears to be mostly women, so these are probably maiden names.” Indeed, it could be harder to locate people if they’ve got married or changed their names in the years since they lost their wallets. But nevertheless, Baltzell believed it was worth a try.
Baltzell continued, “If you know if [a wallet’s owner is] still living or are a family member, we would love to get it back to you!” And although the pastor’s expectations weren’t high, he was nevertheless surprised by the amount of exposure that the post received. He watched as the shares started rolling in – and they just kept on coming.
“[My Facebook post has] been shared a thousand times, then two thousand, then three thousand times,” Baltzell informed KSDK News. “People are commenting, so actually a lot of people reached out, and it’s relatives.” And if you’re wondering whether the Illinois native managed to track down any of the wallets’ owners, you’re in for a nice surprise.
You see, one of the people who contacted Baltzell is related to a woman on his list: Betty June Sissom. In her youth, Betty lived in Centralia and attended the now-defunct high school, graduating from there in 1947. Now, Betty is 89 years young, and she has since relocated around 90 miles away to Chesterfield, Missouri.
Upon hearing that Betty’s relative got in touch, KSDK News wanted to deliver the wallet. After receiving the go-ahead from Baltzell, the station sent out a reporter with the precious package. Plus, the news outlet recorded the event for its YouTube channel, capturing the moment that Betty was reunited with her long-lost treasure.
“So, the pastor wanted me to hand-deliver this to you,” the KSDK News reporter tells Betty in the video, holding out the bagged wallet. And when the old woman takes it, she looks both astonished and pleased to finally have her missing belonging back. Presumably, she’d thought she’d never see it again.
Indeed, Betty tells the reporter, “Well, thank you, I’m so excited.” And as she unpacks the pocketbook, she says, “I can’t believe after all of these years that I’ve… It looks like it’s old.” The object in question certainly appears to have seen better days, but Betty reveals that she still recognizes it.
“I remember it was red,” Betty responds when the reporter questions her about the wallet. But although you can tell that the item in the elderly woman’s hands was indeed once red, it’s now faded to an orangey-brown color. “And I remember I lost my wallet,” she adds before opening it up and checking the documents inside.
Aside from some peripheral damage, the personal items inside the wallet are still well-preserved enough for Betty to identify them. The first photo – which is black and white – shows a young girl standing next to a boy. And Betty tells the reporter that the girl in the picture is actually herself as a child.
“That’s me with a little boy by the name of Jimmy Kane, and I had a crush on him,” Betty reveals. “I must have been about in the third grade or fourth.” However, it’s not the only photo that’s survived a seven-decade stay in the wallet. That’s right: Betty finds other sentimental pictures in there, too.
In fact, Betty pulls out several other photos, all of which show different young men – presumably more of her crushes. And the snapshots seem to stun the elderly lady, who exclaims, “Oh my goodness! Look at the boys’ pictures I have. It’s quite a shock, and it’s really exciting to see these pictures.”
Peering inside the wallet for any hidden cash, Betty jokes, “They took all the money, huh?” But it wasn’t just photos of young love interests that the octogenarian found inside her old purse: friends and family snaps were in there, too. And one picture in particular apparently holds a special place in Betty’s heart.
You see, the wallet also contained a snapshot of Betty’s war hero brother, who, it seems, really meant a lot to her. He had joined the army during World War II but had subsequently passed away. “I was just so glad to get that,” Betty told CNN, “Because I don’t have a picture of him.”
But Betty’s surprises didn’t end there. The elderly woman’s social security card was also among the personal treasures that she recovered from the wallet. And this was something that the former Centralia High Schooler had noted the absence of years ago. In fact, she informed CNN that she’d been looking for the card ever since it had disappeared back in the 1940s.
So, what does Betty think happened to those 15 wallets back in the day? Well, she expressed her surprise at Pastor Baltzell’s theft theory. “I can’t imagine somebody stole all those wallets and put them behind the toilet in a space I didn’t even know was there,” Better explained. That said, no other explanations have been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, although Baltzell hasn’t found any other wallet owners so far, his Facebook post has accrued hundreds of comments. And touchingly, one of the post’s followers has even provided obituaries that appear to account for four of the women. Hopefully, more people will be reunited with their old accessories before too long.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, internet users found the story fascinating – as the comments on various social media pages show. Some people pointed out how amazing it is that the plumber found the wallets at all. “Better late than never,” one Facebook user wrote on KIII 3 News’ July 2019 post. Another added, “This is so cool! Not that they were stolen… but wow, what a find!”
Meanwhile, others ascertained that the wallets’ contents are important to history. “That’s awesome,” one Facebook user commented on Baltzell’s post. “If family doesn’t claim [them], maybe the museum would.” Plus, another camp of social media pundits speculated about who might have stashed away the wallets in the first place – assuming the pastor’s theft theory is right, of course.
“That was pretty smart of the thief, though,” one internet user pointed out. “Without the wallets, they could never prove that he [or] she was the culprit.” However, some people pointed out that a hoard of stolen wallets all containing different student IDs could be considered creepy. A commenter wrote, for instance, “Serial killer training?”
After so long, it’s unlikely that there’s any way of tracking down who placed the wallets behind the toilet. But at least there’s a chance that more owners may be reunited with their personal treasures. And Betty certainly hopes so. She told CNN, “I’m sure the other people whose wallets they found – hopefully they’re still alive – would be as excited as I am.”