The mansion was a secret hidden in plain sight.
Situated on the river bluff overlooking the Mississippi River valley in Bettendorf, Iowa, the mansion was a place that could be seen by everyone, and yet only a very few were allowed to go there.
But for those privileged enough to enter, they sometimes discovered that there was something more than they had bargained for.
The worker let the breeze blow over him as he stood in the doorway. The evening was warm, and the cool night air felt good against his skin after working in the house.
They tried to air condition it as best they could, but when it got too hot outside there just wasn’t much that the machines could do to bring the temperature down in the huge spaces inside. Sometimes, a good wind was better than any air conditioner in the world.
The man took a deep breath. He could smell the river, mixed with the freshly cut grass. He loved the view from up here, especially now when all of the lights were starting to turn on in the river valley below. It wasn’t Las Vegas, but it made him happy.
Suddenly, he felt himself shoved from behind. He involuntarily took a step to catch himself, his upper body still pitching forward with the momentum of the blow.
What the hell? he thought.
Regaining his balance, the man turned fast, his hand raised and ready to hit whoever had pushed him. He could take a joke, but this didn’t feel funny at all.
The man squinted his eyes against the dim lighting inside the house. There wasn’t anyone there.
But there had to be someone, he thought. He could still feel the hands on his back from where he had been shoved. But no one was right behind him, and there was no way that they could have gotten away that fast without him either seeing them or hearing them.
The man decided that he didn’t need the fresh air, or needed to understand what had just happened. Quickly, he closed the double doors to the outside. Making sure that they were locked, he walked across the floor and left the house through a door opposite of where he had been.
What had that worker experienced that night? Who had pushed him? Or, perhaps more accurately, what had pushed him?
That is not a question that comes with an easy answer, or even any kind of real answer at all. At least, not one that we may be able to fully comprehend.
But we’re going to try, and in order to do that we have to go back to a time long before the mansion was built, and examine a legacy full of heartache, death, and madness.
William Bettendorf loved to make things.
Raised by German immigrants, William set off on his own at the age of thirteen to make his own way in the world. He worked several jobs along the way, which included various ones in several plow companies.
His drive and keen intelligence allowed him to climb the management ladder, eventually landing him a high position at the Peru Plow Company in Peru, Illinois. But no matter how high he went, his true passion in life was to make up his own inventions. Luckily for him, the late 1800’s was a perfect time for it, especially in the agricultural industry.
Several inventions had come about that made farm life easier and field work more productive. One of those was the sulky plow.
Before the sulky plow, a farmer plowed a field furrow with a horse-drawn plow that he walked behind. It was hard and tiring work, and it only allowed a farmer to till about forty acres on average.
The sulky plow allowed a man to ride down the road while controlling his horses. It was much less tiring than walking a full forty acres, struggling to control a plow by hand. However, the problem was that the farmer still had to get off the plow at the end of the row, raise the plow share out of the row, maneuver the plow into the start of the next row, then lower the plow back down by hand. Needless to say, it was still a very labor-intensive endeavor.
William wanted to come up with a way to get around this problem. Other were working on the same issue at the same time, but ultimately it was William who was the first to successfully circumvent it.
What he came up with was remarkable simple. It was a plow design that featured a mechanical device that would raise and lower the plow out of the ground, all without the farmer ever having to leave his seat. What had taken up so much time before was no accomplished with the pull of a lever.
William’s sulky plow design was a smash success, and several companies paid to use the design for their own products.
His next major success was what became known as the Bettendorf Metal Wheel.
William’s biggest successes came from not necessarily inventing something brand new that hadn’t ever been seen before, but rather making existing things better and more durable.
Although metal wheels were already in existence, the majority of them in use had an annoying design flaw.
At that time, the wires on standard wheels that helped to hold the wheel together were only welded at the surface of the wheel hub, making them more prone to breaking off. The more that broke off, the weaker the wheel would become. Eventually, with enough of the spokes broken off, the wheel was rendered completely unusable.
William designed his wheel so that the wire spokes were welded inside of the wheel hub itself, making the wheel less prone to breaking. This made them much more durable and allowed them to last much longer overall.
Needless to say, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel was an incredible success.
The Peru Plow Company, William Bettendorf’s employer, were eager to cash in on his success. They were more than happy to allow him to utilize their facility to manufacture the wheels and ship them out from there. The wheel was so successful that the company would eventually change its name to the Peru Plow and Wheel Company.
Unfortunately, while the Peru Plow and Wheel Company was more than happy to manufacture the Bettendorf Metal Wheel and reap the reward of the sales, the company didn’t want to give William any say into the manufacturing process itself. William had several thoughts on how to improve the process, making it more efficient and the product itself even better. Despite requests to the company executives, his suggestions were ignored.
William tried to come to a compromise with them, but the company didn’t want to listen. While they might have thought they had an upper hand, William still owned and controlled his own patents. William Bettendorf quit the Peru Plow and Wheel Company and set out to make his own company.
In 1886, William and his family moved to the eastern Iowa city of Davenport, an already successful city that was still growing rapidly. They had a thriving industrial base that could support William’s new company, and he was able to ship goods along the Mississippi River and to virtually any city in the county via railroad.
William’s reputation had proceeded him, and his inventions were well-known. He was very quickly able to procure the necessary funds and real estate to open his own factory, the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Not too long after, William’s younger brother, Joseph, joined the operation.
In only a few short years, the Bettendorf’s would have the largest factory in the city. They diversified into making other wagon and agricultural parts as well, namely a type of hollow metal axle.
In 1893, a personal tragedy struck. William’s 3-year-old son Henry died. To make matters worse, his 4-year-old daughter died only two months later. Devastated, Willam and his wife, Mary, pushed through and carried on the best way that they knew how.
In 1901, Mary got sick while visiting her parents in Peru, Illinois. After lingering for nearly three-weeks, she also passed away. William buried his beloved wife next to their children in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport.
The Bettendorf Company continued to grow and thrive. But as good as things were going for him, William discovered that his consumers were primarily buying his products seasonally. While that was fine for the warmer months of the year, William knew that he needed to sell a product that he could manufacture – and make profit from – year-round.
After some consideration, he found what he needed in the railroad truck.
A railroad truck gives a railroad car its mobility, guidance, and support. A standard railroad truck was made of several different pieces bolted together. If these bolts came undone, then the truck could fall apart and completely derail the train car.
After spending time experimenting and designing, William came up with a solution for this problem: the Bettendorf Truck. His railroad truck would be constructed in one solid piece, giving it a rugged durability that would not only make it last longer, but also make it far less prone to falling apart.
As the hydraulic-lift sulky plow and the Bettendorf Metal Wheel had been before it, the Bettendorf Truck was a huge sensation. It was amazingly popular, and soon surpassed even the metal wheel.
But his continued success was leading to other problems.
While William liked Davenport and his factory, there was no room for him to expand. The company was surrounded by other well-established businesses, and his own was boxed in. He had built his factory up as much as he could, but if he wanted to continue to grow his business and accommodate the increased demand for his inventions, he would have to build an addition to the company outside of his main factory operations.
As soon as they found out that William was looking to build an expansion to his company, several cities got in touch with him. The Bettendorf Company was one of the hottest and fastest-growing companies in the region at that time, and whatever area that the addition was built in was going to get a huge economic boost from the new factory.
Eventually the news reached the ears of C.A. Ficke, a former Davenport mayor. He was friends with William and approached him with a proposition.
Ficke owned a tract of land near the Mississippi River in the nearby town of Gilbert. Ficke pointed out that there was plenty of room to grow and expand to William’s content. William was very interested, and so he approached the citizens of Gilbert at a town meeting.
He told them that he would love to move into their town and use his company’s funds to help it grow and improve. In return, he requested that they raise the $15,000 it would take to buy the land that the factory would be built on.
The citizens of Gilbert jumped at the chance, and, after a short time, were able to raise the money. William was very pleased, and made plans to start building a new factory.
In the process of this, disaster struck the company. A series of two fires in early 1902 almost completely devastated the Bettendorf Company in Davenport. William thankfully had the land in Gilbert to fall back on now, with plans already moving toward building a new factory there. But now, instead of just building a facility to build railroad parts, William now decided to relocate his entire base of operations to Gilbert.
By 1903, the newly-minted Bettendorf Company was finished and open for business. William and the town of Gilbert was more than pleased with this new outcome, and William quickly moved to make good on his promises to them.
He put significant funds into starting new businesses and growing existing ones. He had new houses built for new employees and their families. A hotel was constructed to not only serve travelling workers and businessman, but also to serve as temporary lodging for workers until their permanent accommodations were finished.
Gilbert was more than satisfied with William’s reinvestment into their town. In 1903, they showed that by renaming the town Bettendorf in his honor.
Profits continued to soar for the Bettendorf Company. Their investment into the railroad had moved them from the national stage and onto the international one. They regularly did business with the heads of manufacturing firms and railroad companies in an age where industry and railroads ruled American commerce.
William focused more and more on designing improvements for railroad cars, eventually fazing out his agricultural lines altogether. At the same time, he continued to expand and improve the company and factory, which included the construction of their own on-site foundry.
William’s personal life took an upturn, as well. In 1908, William met a widower named Elizabeth Staby.
Born in 1857 to Ernst and Elsabe Bruhn, Elizabeth was raised and educated locally. She eventually married a man named John Staby, and gave birth to a son, Oscar, in 1886.
When Oscar was ten years old, John deserted the family.
Fortunately, John’s parents did not. They invited Elizabeth and Oscar to move in with them at their own home in Davenport.
Elizabeth immediately went out to find work to help support herself and Oscar. Eventually, she found a job in the needlework department at the J.M.D. Peterson and Sons department store in the downtown shopping district, one of the most prosperous retailers in the entire region at that time. The store served several people around the area, not the least of which were the wealthy upper class.
Elizabeth, a hard worker who was good with people, climbed the ladder to become head of her department. She earned a solid paycheck, and made many good friends along the way.
Meanwhile, her in-laws helped to watch after and raise young Oscar while he received his education and got to enjoy his childhood.
After he graduated from high school, Oscar began working as a salesman. Just like his mother, he worked hard and performed well.
At some point, Elizabeth met William Bettendorf. The inventor became smitten with her, and they were married in Cook County, Illinois in 1908.
The next year, William decided it was time to build a new home. This was going to be a showcase of his success, designed to entertain and enthrall visiting businessman and heads of industry. In 1909, construction of his home began.
The Spanish-style mansion was constructed on the bluff overlooking not only the Mississippi River valley below it, but also his new company. It had 22 rooms, with some design innovations that William himself designed.
After spending a lifetime improving the durability of equipment in the agricultural and railroad industries, William turned his inventive mind toward his new mansion. In the attic, the concrete floor was poured over a foot thick to promote durability.
The entire house had electricity, fed by the power plant at the Bettendorf Company, as well as a built-in vacuuming system. Like his brother would later do, William had European craftsman come and install hand carved wood work throughout the home.
While the mansion was being built, William moved his parents, Michael and Catherine, as well as his wife and stepson, into a large bungalow across the road from the construction site. William, a stickler for detail, wanted to make sure that he was on-hand to personally oversee the project.
Elizabeth also helped with some of the planning, which included accompanying William on shopping trips to Europe where they bought hand-crafted furniture for their new home.
By this time, Oscar was not only living with William, but was also working as an office clerk for his stepfather’s company. Just as he had done before, he worked hard and tried to build upon his previous success.
In 1910, William and his family took a vacation to Lake Okoboji in Western Iowa. While there, he began to experience stomach problems. Being a robust and hard-working man, William shrugged it off and continued shopping and socializing. However, he soon began to experience severe stomach pains.
Doctors were immediately called to come and examine him. William was initially diagnosed with ptomaine poisoning and prescribed bedrest until the symptoms subsided. For the next few days, William’s health improved. He was feeling better, and was more than ready to get back to work.
On the third day, William collapsed and his condition took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.
Joseph Bettendorf contacted a surgical specialist from Chicago, Dr. A.D. Bevan, to come and examine William. When he arrived in Bettendorf, Bevan was taken straight to William’s home, where he and a colleague determined the inventor was suffering from a perforated bowel.
William was going to require immediate surgery. Unfortunately, the doctors also said that the chances of William surviving were about 100 to 1. With nothing to lost, William agreed to undergo the procedure.
The kitchen was turned into a temporary operating theatre, with the kitchen table serving as an operating table. While he was lying there, waiting to be anesthetized and operated on, William told the surgeons, “Make sure the lights are all right before you operate.”
Those would be William’s last words. William never woke up again, passing away on the operating table on June 3, 1910
The funeral was held three days later, on June 6. Schools, businesses, and banks closed out of respect for William, allowing the employees, teachers, and school children to attend the services. Even bars closed in honor of William’s memory.
The Bettendorf Company, now under Joseph’s leadership, decided to shut down all company operations for the day, making sure that all of the workers were still paid that day.
A special funeral service was held outside the doors of the factory itself for the workers, and after the eulogy was given, the nearly one thousand people in attendance made a procession to the bungalow where William had been laid out in his casket for viewing.
In a fitting tribute to a man who always strived for efficiency, the procession made their way through the front door and out through the back as they paid their last respects to William Bettendorf.
That afternoon, another private funeral service was held for William’s close personal friends and family. Afterwards, his body was taken to Oakdale Cemetery and laid next to Mary and his children.
While William had never seen his mansion finished, Elizabeth was determined to make sure that his last project was completed. A local judge made a ruling that allowed funds to be diverted from William’s estate to complete the construction of his home. Elizabeth moved in shortly after.
She lived there comfortably for the next several years. During that time, she would host both parties and private gatherings for her friends. She also would take in single women and mothers who were down on their luck, helping them out until they could get on their feet again. Elizabeth never advertised their humanitarian efforts, and even people close to her didn’t know about her activities.
In 1913, Oscar married Helen Ronley, a young socialite from Clinton, Iowa. They moved to Davenport and began to make a new life together, eventually having two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret.
Oscar had continued to build his business interests, and held several investments around the area.
In 1922, Elizabeth passed away while enjoying a long stay in Los Angeles, California. She was brought home and buried next to William.
Oscar was the main beneficiary of her estate, which included the mansion.
The home was valued at over $100,000, which would be valued at nearly $1.3 million in modern times. While it was a truly magnificent home, it was also too much house for Oscar and his family. It was also incredibly expensive to maintain. While he had been very successful in his own business endeavors, the funds that were required to take care of such a place were a bit beyond even his considerable means.
During the early 1920’s, the Freemasons of Iowa began to actively seek out a place that they could use as a retirement home for their aging members and their families. They looked into several prospective places throughout the state, but none seemed quite right.
Oscar had become heavily involved with the Masonic order several years before, and by then was a high-ranking official in the organization. When he heard about the needs of the Iowa Freemason’s, he contacted them and told them about his property.
The Iowa Mason’s were very interested and a tour was arranged. They loved the property and eagerly sat down to discuss a price.
Oscar Staby had a well-deserved reputation for being a caring and giving man. In an act of impressive generosity, Oscar offered to sell the mansion, grounds, and all of its furnishings for only $50,000, fully half of the property’s value. The Freemasons were stunned. They accepted the deal and plans were set in motion to purchase the home.
Around the same time, Oscar and Helen moved their family west to Los Angeles. They settled comfortably and Oscar quickly began to accumulate several successful business investments there. Their roots were still strong in Davenport, however, and the couple frequently traveled back to visit friends and relatives.
In 1925, the sale of the mansion to the Freemasons was finalized, and Oscar happily turned over the keys to them.
By 1927, the future couldn’t have been brighter for Oscar and Helen. Oscar’s investments in Los Angeles had done well, and the ones that he still held in Davenport continued to perform. In true California style, he had even become a movie producer.
On the evening of October 23, 1927, Oscar’s family sat down for Sunday dinner.
Oscar and Helen were there, of course, and their daughter Margaret. Helen’s mother had come over, and Elizabeth was home for a visit from boarding school.
As he began to carve the roast that had been made for Sunday dinner, Oscar’s hands suddenly began to shake. He felt nervous, so nervous that he couldn’t control himself enough to make his hands stop shaking. Oscar excused himself, dropping the knife and fork on the table. He walked quickly out of the room and up the stairs.
The rest of the family was surprised. The attack had come so suddenly, and Oscar had left so quickly. As they sat there, they heard a gunshot from upstairs. After a shocked second, they raced up to find out what had happened.
There, in the bathroom, was Oscar. He had shot himself through the head.
The authorities were called, but there was nothing left to do but take away the body and try to find an answer to the burning question on everyone’s mind – why?
The family got along well. There were no secret affairs or disgruntled relatives. Everyone was happy and well adjusted. Oscar’s financial situation was also good. He made a good living, and had no dishonest or illegal dealings.
An autopsy was performed, and it showed that Oscar had died from a single gunshot wound to his head. Ultimately, it was concluded that Oscar suffered a sudden bout of temporary insanity that had driven him to suicide.
But had brought it on? Some thought that ill health might have been a contributing factor to his disturbed frame of mind. Was there some secret guilt that he had over an unknown action? Why had such a kind-hearted and generous family man suddenly run upstairs and commit suicide before Sunday dinner?
By this point, it didn’t matter. Oscar Staby was dead.
He was buried in a simple grave in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Los Angeles. Friends and family attended, and his death made headline news back in Davenport.
Oscar Staby had been a kind and generous man, much like his stepfather, William. They had grown successful both privately and publicly. Both of their lives had also been cut tragically short before their time, leaving the world a little dimmer for their passing.
In Bettendorf, the mansion that he had once called home was doing well under the care and supervision of the Iowa Freemason’s. They had built an addition to the mansion, a large wing that held seventy-five beds for their members.
Over the next several years, other additions were made, included an intensive care unit and separate housing just under the bluff where the mansion sat.
The mansion itself was used for executive offices, virtually unchanged from the time the Freemason’s had taken over in 1925. Accessed by a door from one of the additions that wrapped around the original home, stepping into the house was like stepping through a door in time.
According to some, that statement might be more accurate than some might think.
Over the years, employees started to notice odd things. They heard strange sounds. Objects would be moved, seemingly by themselves. Some, like the worker looking out at the bluff, felt themselves touched by unseen hands.
Once, a worker, who we’ll call Jo, was working with a co-worker, who we’ll call Sam, in the mansion. Ann was in her office, while Sam was elsewhere in the house.
A thick quiet lay over the house, broken only by the sound of Jo typing and moving things on her desk as she worked.
Suddenly, she heard someone call her name. “Jo!”
Unfazed, Jo didn’t even look up. “Yes?” she called in reply. No answer.
“Yes?” she called again. She though maybe whoever called her hadn’t heard her. Still no answer. Figuring that it was Sam and that her co-worker had gotten the answer that she needed without her help, Jo went back to work.
Time passed. Jo was making good headway into her work when she heard her name again.
This time, Jo decided to go to Sam and find out what she needed. Getting up, she walked to her office door. “Yes?” she called. “What do you need?”
No answer came.
Jo walked out into the darkened hallway and called out again. Still no answer.
Jo went past the grand staircase and went to the old living room, now another office. It was dark, and it was clear that no one was in there. It was the same with the dining room next door. No lights, no people. No Sam.
Just as she was returning to her office, the door to the outside addition opened and Sam stepped through. Somewhat startled, Jo asked her what she needed.
Sam looked confused. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“You called for me. Two or three times. What did you need, Sam?” Jo replied.
“I don’t know what you mean. It wasn’t me. I’ve been outside since I got here.”
When Jo had heard her name called, she had been in the mansion by herself.
After this activity had gone on for a while, someone decided to try and do something about it. Looking in the mansion’s past, they were able to locate a photograph of Elizabeth Staby. Making a copy, they framed it and hung it prominently in one of the offices.
Ever since, no more activity has been reported at the house.
Was it the spirit of Elizabeth Staby in the home, moving objects and calling out people’s names until someone gave her the recognition that she wanted? Could it have been the spirit of William Bettendorf himself, determined to enjoy the home that he was never able to in life? Was it Oscar Staby, come to visit a happier time in his life?
Or could it have been all of them, along with Mary Bettendorf and her children, all come to be together in the afterlife?
The answer is open to interpretation. For now, the home is quiet, and whatever was there seems to be at rest. We can only hope that it stays that way.
2 thoughts on “The House on the Hill: The Haunted History of the W.P. Bettendorf Mansion”
Spooky; however I still don’t believe in ghosts.this is unexplainable! Very interesting read!
I volunteered at the Masonic Home for over 20 years. On a few occasions I visited the beautiful “house” part of the nursing home. So this story was especially interesting to me. Thanks, John.