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My Family Spent Four Months Playing Battleship in a Cornfield

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 11, 2023 3:02 am

My Family Spent Four Months Playing Battleship in a Cornfield

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 11, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the story itself is the stuff of legends...a sunken steamboat, buried treasure, and the drive of a group of HVAC repairmen to become "rich beyond rich," even if it meant going into over a million dollars worth of debt. Matt Hawley tells the story of his family's quest to dig up the steamboat Arabia from the middle of a cornfield.

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For the ones who get it done. Or wherever you get your podcast. Up next, a story about a modern-day treasure hunt that involves whiskey. And in an interesting place, the fields of Parkville, Missouri. Here to tell the story of the hunt is Matt Hawley of the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Take it away, Matt. Believe it or not, there's not a lot of people looking for steamboats. It takes a certain blend of crazy to go after steamboats, and the Hawleys have just that right blend. My dad David, he, my uncle Greg, and my grandfather Bob, they worked in HVAC. So they fixed air conditioners, refrigerators, AC units for people in the Kansas City metro area.

Just a blue-collar family. And one day, my dad took a service call to fix an air conditioner. He met a unique guy. You know, we would probably look at him and say he's kind of a conspiracy theorist. My dad walked into this guy's house and passed a room and saw pictures of Bigfoot on a wall, UFOs on the other, and tables with maps just everywhere, just scribblings, notes, kind of just all over the place. And my dad, he wasn't really interested in Bigfoot or the UFOs, but he's looking at these maps all over the tables, and he just said, you know, what are all these little dots that you've indicated? And the guy says, well, these are all steamboats that have sunk in the Missouri River. And if someone goes down and if they find a boat and they sell everything they find, they will be rich beyond rich. And my dad thought that was a pretty cool idea.

That sounded more fun than fixing another furnace or air conditioner. So my dad fixed the guy's unit, gets in his truck and calls up my grandpa and my uncle on their little CB radios and says, guys, meet me at Jerry's. I got a story for you. So they all go to a fast food restaurant named Highboy. It was owned by a guy named Jerry Mackey. Now, Jerry Mackey and my grandfather were good friends. They learned to fly helicopters together. They went on, you know, treasure hunts together in their own rights in Colorado. They'd go through old abandoned, you know, gold mines.

So everyone meets at Highboy and Jerry comes out from the kitchen and sits down in the booth with the guys. And my dad kind of recounts the story of his morning and they all were pretty excited about that. They said, Dave, if you go find a boat, if you find one that you like, we'll go dig it. So my dad researched for years, learned the story of steamboats. In the Missouri River, there's roughly 400 sunken steamboats. Now, back in the heyday of steamboats, the Missouri River was notoriously wide and shallow, which made it very easy for the river to shift its course one way or the other. Of the 400 boats that went down, 75% went down because of tree snags. So boats would hit these submerged trees and they would sink very quickly. And around the turn of the century, the Army Corps of Engineers realized that we have a problem. All these boats are still sinking and the river is still pretty untamed.

So they started dredging the river, getting rid of snags, and they made the river consistently narrow, more narrow and deeper, which took the Missouri River, which is very wide, and made it considerably more narrow than what we see today. So now all these steamboats are no longer in the river itself. They're all in farm fields.

But you can't just start walking in farm fields. You need to know what you're looking for. So my dad started trying to figure out where these boats are. Came across the story of the Arabia, and the story of the Arabia was general goods in the 1850s. Sank just a few miles outside of Kansas City. It went down on September 5, 1856, and it was the perfect steamboat to go for.

Sank quickly, quickly enough that all the cargo was taken down with the boat, but all 150 passengers were able to get off the boat safely. We didn't want to have to deal with the people who didn't survive. So the Arabia, perfect. So we figured out who owned the land. The landowner was an old Wyandotte County judge, Judge Norman Sorter. And so my dad, these guys go knock on the judge's door, and they say, Judge Sorter, we're not crazy, but we think there's a steamboat buried in your cornfield. And the judge kind of looks at him for a second, and he says, oh, you all were talking about the Arabia. Come here.

I'll show you where it is. The judge knew all about the boat. His great-grandfather had purchased the land from the Wyandotte Indians, and they had told him that a great white ship is buried under your land. And the Arabia was kind of famous because when it sank in 1856, it was reportedly carrying 400 barrels of Kentucky's finest bourbon. And when that boat sank, everyone was writing stories about the Arabia and the whiskey barrels. What happened to them? Are they still on the boat?

Who's going to get them? And there were several attempts to get the Arabia's whiskey. So when we showed up, the judge, he was like, all right, it's another group of you guys. Come here.

He took us in the field, pretty much showed us. He said, it's somewhere right about here. And so my dad walked the field with a device called a proton magnetometer. We call it a fancy metal detector. But he was able to use this magnetometer to pick up the large iron boilers on board the Arabia. So we were able to pinpoint its location in about two and a half hours of actually walking the field.

So pretty quick. We talked to the judge and we structured a deal. And he said, if you all want to waste your time and your money, you go right ahead, but you will never get down to that boat. We know where it is. The problem is 10 feet below surface, there's an aquifer, basically an underground river running through this field. And everyone who's tried to get to this boat, they've hit the water and they've not been able to dewater the field enough to get down to the boat, which is 45 feet beneath the surface. So we said, well, we'd like to give it a shot. So he said, you guys go right ahead. And you're listening to Matt Hawley tell the story of these crazy men trying to dig up the steamboat Arabia. And it took crazy men to endeavor to do that, as you just heard. And why when we come back, what happens next? Do they dig it up?

Don't they? The story of Steamboat Arabia with Matt Hawley continues here on our American stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American stories dot com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

That's our American stories dot com. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why untold stories life with myasthenia gravis. A new podcast from I Heart Radio in partnership with Argenics is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Contact your dealer for local inventory information. And we continue with our American stories and we return to Matt Hawley and the story of the steamboat Arabia. When we last left off, Matt's dad and a group of fellow blue collar workers had decided they wanted to dig up buried treasure, buried treasure in the form of a sunken steamboat called the Arabia. And by the way, sunken on a farm.

Let's continue with a story. So word got out that these this group of guys were wanting to dig up a steamboat here in Missouri. And our fifth partner came along, a guy named Dave Latrell. He owned a construction company here in the in the area. And Dave Latrell got a hold of us. He called Jerry on the phone one day and said, you know, I read about your story in the newspaper and I own a construction company, but I've always wanted to do one crazy thing before I die. And he said, I heard about you guys and I think that's exactly what I want to do. I want to dig up a steamboat with you guys.

Can I come on board? And Jerry was, you know, it was a Sunday. Jerry was talking to him on the phone. He's like, actually, I'm on my way out the door to a Chiefs game. Can I call you later after the game?

We'll talk then. Dave said, what section do you sit in? Turns out Dave and Jerry were both season ticket holders. They sat in the same section. They're like three rows away from each other. So Dave and Jerry got together at a Chiefs game some Sunday afternoon, and that's when Dave Latrell became the fifth partner.

So the guys started in the winter of 1988. You guys ever play the game Battleship? My family, they played Battleship in a cornfield for about three days. And what they would do is they would drill down. If they tapped on the boat, that hole would get an orange surveyor flag and they would move over a few feet.

Repeat the process. If you missed, you get a white flag. So after a few days of doing it, you've got enough orange flags surrounding the boat.

You can make a chalk outline to determine not only where the hotspot is, but how the boat is laying in the field itself. So sure enough, 10 feet down we hit river water. And so at that point we knew you can't just start digging. You have to get rid of the water. So we set up a series of wells. We bought 12, and each well could pump out a thousand gallons of water a minute. And we thought, oh, surely that'll be enough to get the water table down.

We'll get to the boat, no problem. It ended up taking 20 to get us down to the boat itself, each pumping a thousand gallons of water every 60 seconds. So for the duration of a four and a half month dig, we were pumping 20,000 gallons every 60 seconds.

And that was enough to get you down to the main deck of the Arabia. And once we got into the dig, these guys were walking around, sometimes in waist-high water. And they said if one pump went down, they were all diesel fuel generated. So they said if one of those things ran out of fuel and just shut off, you could feel the water start to rise back up on your chest.

So we were truly at that tipping point. But no, we pumped down the water, we got down into the boat, and we started pulling up its cargo. Being an 1850s, what we call general store collection, a lot of these things are just the everyday things that people on the frontier needed.

General supplies, food, construction, building materials, things to put in the homes. And these boats are kind of like, you know, UPS and FedEx trucks today. You know, they carry some nice things, but not like probably a gold chest of coins and, you know, rubies and diamonds. We weren't expecting to find things like that.

We were looking for everyday American history. And the first barrel of things we found, we opened up the top and underneath were these beautiful china dishes, dishes from England. So during the dig, these five guys are all married and, you know, all the wives are pretty good sports, letting their boys go out and dig up steamboats.

You know, again, blue collar guys through and through. So the idea of digging up a steamboat is kind of different. So all the wives are a little nervous when you're spending thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars to get down just to maybe find something. You know, is there really something on board this boat?

We don't know. But when we got down there and opened up this first barrel and found these dishes, right off the bat, that's when all the moms and wives were like, you know what, boys, this is a good idea. You keep digging.

I think this is going to be an OK thing. So that set off a four and a half month dig that pulled up things that truly can't be found anywhere else in the world. Nature had preserved the collection so remarkably well, we found food on board that was still edible. Again, Jerry is a restaurant owner and these guys are notorious for eating just about anything. Jerry tried pickles, butter, cheese, salt, pork.

We actually found bottles of champagne still had carbonation inside them. Not surprisingly, four of the guys were willing to try that one. So again, just an incredibly well-preserved collection and just a story of American history that you can't find anywhere else. Now when you get together with your buddies and you say, let's go on this adventure together, of course the conversation becomes, how are we going to pay for this? What is it going to cost to dig up a steamboat?

No one's really done it before, so what do we think? And they're all, again, blue collar guys. They work with their hands. They have tools and Dave Latrell owns a construction company.

So this guy owns Bulldozer. So we're thinking, oh, between all of us, if we each chip in 10,000 a piece, 50,000 total, that's going to be all the money in the world. 50,000 lasted a week and a half of the dig. So we just had to start borrowing from a bank. The dig ended up costing about a million dollars, all borrowed at that point. And then, of course, we're thinking, well, once we got in the collection, we realized we can't sell these things. The story, the idea originally of selling it, making a bunch of money, that was the driving force at the beginning. But when we found those dishes and we got into the collection, we were finding all these just incredible stories, we said, you can't sell something like this.

You've got to keep the story together. But we just borrowed a million dollars to do it. So how are we going to recoup our money from this in a museum was just the logical choice. So we had to go to the bank and borrow another sum of money, about half a million, to build the museum that we currently reside in. So we opened the doors three years to the day that we started the excavation. November 13, 1988, we started the dig. We opened the doors here at the museum.

November 13, 1991, about 1.5 million in debt. But we are proud to say we've paid back all loans and we've kept the museum open 100 percent on ticket sales. We brought up 200 tons of lost cargo and we looked at all this stuff and these guys are saying, you know, we're fast cleaners.

So we'll get through everything. We'll have it clean, preserved, on display. It won't take more than eight or nine years to do. We have been now cleaning the Arabia collection for about 33 years. And at this point, I think I heard a little while ago, we have somewhere I think between 40 and 50 tons still to go.

And at this rate, we think that'll take probably another 10, maybe 12 years of nonstop preservation. The question of what happened to the whiskey or where is the whiskey? I get that every single day. And I always kind of laugh at folks and I say, sad story. We never found the whiskey. We believe all those barrels had been stored on the main deck of the boat. So when it started to sink, the river wiped them all downstream. Now, I hope, my genuine hope is some good old boy farmer was just downstream fishing that night, kind of relaxing, doing his thing. And he saw one barrel float by and he's like, well, that's interesting. He's 400 more coming down right behind and he had one heck of a party.

That's what I hope happened. And a special thanks to Katrina Hein and to Monty Montgomery for gathering that story and producing it. And a special thanks to Matt Hawley, who is the self-described and glorified museum tour guide. And the museum is the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. If you're ever in that neck of the woods, drop by. This is the kind of Americana that we love to tell stories about.

We've done a story about the Toaster Museum, the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, the Neon Light Museum. And of course, our lawnmower racing show, our tank collector. We have a guy who collected tanks.

I'm talking tanks, like real military tanks. And my goodness, what a story this is. As Matthew mentioned, it takes a lot of crazy to want to collect steamboats. And my goodness, the story of how the Missouri River, well, it led to a lot of sinking of steamboats was fascinating in and of itself. Four hundred sunken steamboats. And then the Army Corps of Engineers went to work, narrowed that river, deepened it. And the next thing you know, those sunken steamboats were sunken in Farmfield. And my goodness, one and a half million dollars later, this little adventure, well, it turned into this museum. And how the wives managed to stay on board and how these guys kept their marriages intact.

Maybe that's another story. The story of the Steamboat Arabia Museum here on Our American Story. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG, so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition. Listen to find strength and community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. This July, premium entertainment's on us. Xfinity Flex unlocks access to shows, movies and music so you can always try something new for free each week. Like singing hits with Stingray Karaoke, exploring shows from abroad with Acorn TV, sampling everything available on Max, like season three of The Righteous Gemstones, falling in love with pics from Hallmark Movies Now, and turning up with iHeartRadio's Hit Nation playlist. Discover new free content across the best streaming apps every week of the year, no strings attached.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-11 04:36:01 / 2023-07-11 04:45:32 / 10

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