The Strelow Brother’s Hidden Fortune

Theodore Strelow had been born in Germany, but had come to Nebraska nearly fifty years prior. He and his brother, Charles, lost no time in buying a farm and settling in.

The two were very successful, and they lived a relatively simple, quiet existence that centered almost exclusively on farming. They were very frugal and became virtual hermits. When Theodore got sick and needed a doctor, he was taken to a hospital in nearby Lincoln. On November 6, 1925, his life came to a quiet, unremarkable end.

Little did anyone suspect, but Theodore and Charles had been harboring a secret for decades. Theodore’s death had just set into motion a series of events that would reveal something that would soon become legend in the annals of  Nebraska history.

   When his brother died, Charles Strelow’s way of life came to an abrupt end. The two men had been each other’s constant companions for decades, living on a 320-acre farm near the town of Sprague. They had been born in Germany in the 1840’s, then immigrated to America with two other brothers, Fred and John, in the late 1860’s.

young strelows
Charles (left) and Theodore (right) Strelow as young men. Courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star

After arriving in New York, they moved to Chicago. All four of them were industrious and hard-working, and had no trouble finding employment. John successfully invested in real estate, and soon began to grow roots and settle into life in the city. The story amongst the family was that Charles and Theodore had also put a lot of money in real estate there, but were far less successful, experiencing heavy losses.

It was those same losses that drove their decision to move further west to Nebraska. Leaving Chicago and John behind, the others left, settling south of Lincoln.

Charles and Theodore bought a farm with all the necessary equipment to run it with what money they had left, and began to build their operation. Fred bought his own farm nearby, eventually marrying and having children.

The other two, however, never did. They lived as virtual recluses, having few – if any – friends. They lived very simply, spending very little and saving the rest.

In 1899, the brothers went to visit T.H. Miller, president of the bank in the nearby town of Crete. They explained that they recently sent all of their money to John in Chicago to invest in real estate. The brothers claimed that they had been to see their attorney about the matter, and were told that the official documents that John had sent them were incorrect.

Miller, examining the papers, saw what he expected –  official documents concerning property in Chicago. As it happened, he was going to be there the following week, so Miller offered to stop and talk with John about the matter. The brothers were overjoyed, and enthusiastically accepted his offer.

Miller had a financial report run on John Strelow, which showed that he operated a real estate business on the North End. Miller went there and spoke with Strelow about his brothers concerns.

John showed himself to be an honorable businessman, answering all of Miller’s questions and addressing all of his concerns. He told the banker that in two or three months he would be able to raise all of the $35,000 that Charles and Theodore had invested and pay them back. To prove that he was telling the truth, John shared the paperwork on other loans that he had made.

Miller found everything to be in order, and gave the brothers every confidence that their brother was telling the truth. He assured them that they would be getting their money back in a timely fashion. The brothers agreed, and Miller made payment arrangements with John.

Miller collected $26,000 in gold, but three mortgages proved to be a little trickier. The mortgage deals had been made so that they would be paid off in ten years. Legally, the signers had that entire time to pay them off, so the brothers would have to wait to collect that part of their investment.

Charles and Theodore were happy with what they had for the time being, and didn’t make much trouble over the mortgages.

When they went to the bank to collect the cash, Miller asked if they wanted to invest or deposit the money. The brothers said they wanted it all in gold. Unfazed, Miller told them that it would be there for them the next day.

The brothers came, collected the gold, and went back to their farm.

Eight years later, the mortgages came due and were paid off. In order to release the funds, the brothers needed to sign some paperwork to initiate their part of the process. When asked, the two refused.

Miller took the paperwork and went to the Strelow farm personally to try again. While they were friendly and polite, the Strelow’s still wouldn’t sign.

When asked, they explained that someone had told them that if they signed any papers, then it would be signing over their ownership of the farm and they would lose everything. In spite of his attempts to explain otherwise, the brothers would not be convinced.

For the next several years, the brothers continued their same lifestyle. As they grew older, they allowed the two-room shack that they lived in to fall into disrepair. The house became absolutely filthy, a tangled mass of dirt and trash. Rough paths, almost like game trails in the forest, had been made to areas where the brothers rested or cooked.

Strelow Home
The home of Charles and Theodore Strelow. Courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star

When a state welfare officer came to check on Charles after Theodore’s death, they were horrified. What was worse, Charles didn’t believe in bathing or changing his clothes. He was as filthy as his home, and he had to have smelled awful. Presumably for his own good, authorities came and took Charles to a local sanitorium to get cleaned up.

Meanwhile, Charles’ relatives had become extremely interested in Theodore’s inheritance. In a will that was made in 1909, Theodore left everything to his brother. That same year, Charles had also made out his will, and it was almost an exact copy of Theodore’s. Theodore left everything that he had to Charles, and vice versa.

The Strelow relatives began to contend that Charles, at his advanced age and his pronounced aversion to soap, had obviously slipped mentally. In addition to this, there was also a concern that Charles might not do as well on his own. Theodore had always been the cook, and now that he was gone, some were afraid that Charles might starve, or maybe set the house on fire figuring out how to use the stove. The family requested that a guardian be appointed over him to ensure his continued good health, and watch over his assets.

Strelow Brothers
Theodore (left) and Charles (Right) Strelow in later life. Courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star

While the brothers didn’t have hardly anything in the way of worldly goods, Charles now had the controlling interest of a 320-acre farm. In 1925, it was worth an estimated $125 an acre. Whoever controlled it could use the land themselves, which had produced solid crops for fifty years, or sell it off for upwards of $40,000. To put this into perspective, in 2018, Charley’s farm would be worth approximately $581,000.

And, of course, there was always the matter of the treasure.

For years, there were stories about how the hermits, contrary to their ragged, dirty appearance, had amassed small fortune. Although the exact amount no doubt varied on the telling, the rumor was that they had anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 buried underneath their house.

While most practical people wouldn’t have expected this much money, no one would have been surprised if the brothers did have a few thousand dollars hidden away.

For decades, people didn’t trust banks in America. They didn’t want to give away their hard-earned money to anyone, let alone an institution full of near-strangers. But people couldn’t exactly carry around their life savings in a bag, either. So, they hid it.

They buried their coins and cash in jars and boxes, sometimes hiding or even burying it in a place that they felt was safe. Others stuffed their mattresses full, literally sleeping on their bank account. For people like Theodore and Charles, who didn’t seem to fully trust anyone besides one another, this kind of monetary hoarding probably wouldn’t have been surprising.

Charles, for his part, said that he was perfectly sane. Not bathing was his conscious, active choice, not something that he had forgotten how to do. Although elderly, he was still fully capable of taking care of himself and his property. He and Theodore had distanced themselves from the rest of their family years before, and Charles saw no reason why they should be able to step in now and take what they had worked so had to build.

To drive his point home, Charles filed a demurrer against his family’s petition for a guardian.

The courts, in response to the situation, had Charles remanded to the care of Dr. B.F. Bailey’s sanatorium, Green Gables. There he would get the physical care that he needed, as well as have his mental health assessed. Once his sanity, or insanity, had been properly and officially been examined, the case would proceed.

On November 16, 1925, a hearing was started regarding Charles’ mental state. At that time, professionals who had worked with him were of the opinion that, while he had some eccentric ideas about personal hygiene, Charles had a very sound mind. Nothing was concluded in the first day, and the hearing was scheduled to continue later that month. During that time, Strelow would continue to stay at the sanatorium.

While everyone fought over who would control the farm, the place itself sat empty. Theodore’s recent death and the on-going court case had churned up all the old stories about the treasure. People were interested, and it occurred to some of them that there wasn’t anyone home to stop a curious person with a shovel from taking a look around.

That morning, word had gotten to police that someone had ransacked the Strelow farm. In turn, they notified the lawyers and family members involved.The county sheriff and Robert Strelow, Charles’ nephew, went to the Strelow farm to see what had happened. With them were Roberts attorney, O.W. Meier, and Robert Hastings, Charles’ own lawyer.

The inside of the home had been wrecked. The floor boards had all been pried up and then left where they fell. In spite of the terrible condition of the home, nothing appeared to have been taken. Still, the men present that day decided to take a look around and make sure that everything was alright.

Strelow House Interior
The interior of the Strelow home, as found by the county sheriff. Courtesy of the Lincoln Star

It didn’t take them long to find something almost completely unexpected: gold. The property was searched, and several containers discovered, filled with paper currency, gold, bonds, and coins. To make sure that all of his client’s funds had been recovered, Robert Hastings left to talk to Charles

Charles revealed that there was still some gold left in the granary. When searched, another cache was found, this one containing nearly $6500 in gold. After the money had all been counted, over $16,000 in gold, over $28,000 in various denominations of paper currency, $2,000 of liberty bonds, and $110 of coins had been found. All told, there was $46,705 recovered.

The stories, for nearly 35 years only the stuff of dreams and rumors, had turned out to be true.

   The money was loaded into the sheriff’s car and taken directly to the First Trust Bank. It was placed into a large safety deposit box, under the care of the Theodore Strelow estate. Now, no curious treasure hunters would be able to take it. Under the care of the bank, no one would be able to touch it until the sanity hearing  had reached its conclusion.

Strelow Treasure containers, Lincoln Star
The various containers that were found containing the Strelow fortune. Courtesy of the Lincoln Star

To the best of everyone’s knowledge, the Strelow brothers had started hoarding their money after a large local bank closed down in the very late 19th century. Paranoid about keeping their money in other banks, they chose to hoard it on their farm.

On November 27, 1925, a county judge officially declared that Strelow wasn’t insane. However, given his overall poor physical condition coupled with certain health problems, the court also decreed that Charles needed a legal guardian to make sure that he was properly taken care of. Charles asked that Robert Hastings, his attorney,  be declared as such. The court approved.

Things settled down, and the legalities progressed smoothly forward. Then, another bombshell exploded in the case, this time from none other than Charles himself.

Filing an application to revoke his attorney’s appointment as his guardian, Charles stated that he believed that Hastings, Meier, and Charles’ nephew Robert were conspiring against him. He firmly believed that they had conspired to have him confined somewhere and take control of his money. Charles further claimed that Hastings had threatened him, forcing the elderly man to appoint him his guardian.

Shortly before Christmas, Charles became very ill, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. For a while, he seemed to be recovering well. Unfortunately, he contracted a second case of pneumonia and passed away on January 21, 1926. Charles was buried next to his brother in a quiet cemetery in Centerville, Nebraska.

After a few legal contentions that played themselves out rather quickly, Charles and Theodore’s extended family were awarded the entirety of the fortune, thus bringing to an end the story.

Or did it?

In 1925, local bank president T.H. Miller didn’t believe that all of the fortune had been recovered. According to his own estimation, Miller argued that another $26,000 in gold, saved from their farm earnings over so many years, was still buried somewhere out on the farm.

When asked, Charles Strelow insisted that all of his fortune had been found. Authorities seemed content to take him at his word, and no effort was made to look any further.

Could there still be a small fortune in gold buried by the brothers? Did Charles Strelow choose to keep it hidden, taking its location with him to the grave? Perhaps.

Whether there is or not, the tale of the Strelow Fortune remains one of the strangest tales to ever come from the grassy plains of eastern Nebraska.

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  Sources

Releases in Chicago Realty Led to Strelow Brothers to Hoard Their Money and Become Hermits. The Lincoln Star, 11/20/1925

Thousands Not Found. The Lincoln Journal Star, 11/21/1925

Strelow Insanity Hearing Goes Over. Lincoln Star, 11/17/1925

The Nebraska State Journal, 11/10/1925

Estate Left to Brother. The Lincoln Star, 11/10/1925

Demurrer Filed. The Lincoln Star, 11/15/1925

Continue Strelow Query Into Sanity. The Nebraska State Journal, 11/17/1925

Dig Up The Strelow Fortune. Lincoln Journal Star, 11/18/1925

Strelow Wealth All Found. Lincoln Journal Star, 11/19/1925

Concealing Cash Total. The Nebraska State Journal, 11/19/1925

Sum of $46,000 Uncovered On Strelow Farm. The Lincoln Star, 11/19/1925

Say No Gold On The Farm. Lincoln Journal Star, 11/24/1925

Strelow Is Not Insane. Lincoln Journal Star, 11/27/1925

Estate of Hermits Big. Lincoln Journal Statr, 12/16/1925

Strelow Case is Re-Opened. The Lincoln Star, 12/18/1925

Bond Filed for Appeal. Lincoln Journal Star, 12/22/1925

Charles Strelow Ill At Hospital. Lincoln Journal Star, 12/22/1925

No Retrial of Strelow. Lincoln Journal Star, 12/24/1925

Strelow Seriously Ill With Second Pneumonia Attack. The Lincoln Star, 1/20/1926

Strelow’s Will Filed. Lincoln Journal Star, 1/22/1926

Nebraska State Historical Society – www.nebraskahistory.com

Find A Grave – www.findagrave.com

 

 

 

 

 

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