cover photo courtesy of Jessica May Olson, 360 photos by Nate Sohn
They came, they settled, they left. UrbExers explored.
A crumbling Victorian house sits tucked back from the country road in Northeast Iowa. White paint dulling with age is peeling off of its sides. The walls and roof sag from two decades of neglect. This is what we’ve been looking for. Getting inside is as simple as mounting the porch and opening the front door.
My photographer, Nate, and I found this obscure house with the help of Jessica Mae Olson, an urban explorer who photographs and shares her finds on her blog, Abandoned Midwest. Olson started “urbexing” after her grandfather gave her a camera when she was in high school.
“I was just driving around, trying to find something to take pictures of, because I was really excited,” Olson says. “I came across a house and just instantly fell in love — the idea of finding beauty in something that most people think is useless, something different.”
Urban Exploration is something that has recently come out of the shadows thanks to explorers like Olson who share their experiences on the web. Explorers usually stumble across abandoned places. But sometimes they find hints on online forums. Some urban explorers have reached internet fame through uploading their videos on YouTube. The goal is to document the buildings that might’ve been forgotten to history.
“finding beauty in something that most people think is useless, something different.”
“I know a lot of photographers like to pose things,” Olson says. “My philosophy is pretty much to just leave everything where it lies. It kind of takes away from the authenticity if you move things.”
Most urban explorers follow the same code — look, but don’t touch. It’s a sign of respect. Most explorers don’t want to disturb what has been left alone for so long and are disappointed when they find a site that has been vandalized or broken into.
Joshua Bryant, an urban explorer based in Wisconsin, ascribes to the same philosophy.
“I just love that kind of stuff: where history appears,” Bryant says.
Bryant started for fun, but he now does it to preserve the crumbling beauty and history of long forgotten buildings. His love for exploring stems from when he was a kid and would explore spooky places near his home. “From there, it just kind of kept going,” he says. “I kept looking up roadside attractions, abandoned and historic places. I just go on these road trips and adventures and explore.”
In addition to finding places on his own, Bryant discovered a community of urban explorers near his home — Abandoned Wisconsin — an underground urbex group focusing on documenting Wisconsin heritage that was left to rot.
“I just love that kind of stuff: where history appears”
Ironically, Bryant’s favorite structure is actually in Minnesota – Fergus Falls insane asylum. It’s recognized as a Kirkbride – mental health facilities designed to provide sunlight exposure and airflow – and was abandoned in 2005, when many of the Kirkbride asylums were closing their doors.
“It’s my favorite because they just try to cover up the history because of how they treated people with disabilities back then,” Bryant says. “But they just seem to be the most beautiful buildings that are being destroyed.”
Bryant also mentors people with disabilities and young offenders, taking them on road trips to explore various abandoned places. “They enjoy the history and seeing these things,” he says.
Lucky for Nate and I, we were able to experience this pastime first-hand.
Plaster crunches under our feet as we walk into the front parlor. A painting of Jesus Christ still hangs on the far wall, beneficently watching over the chairs, hand-carved pocket doors and debris that are strewn about him.
Olson was able to find the history of this particular property by backtracking names through tax documents, gravestones and census information.
“I start with any tax information I can find about the owners,” Olson says. “There’s a lot of sites where you can look up grave markers and names that way, and they’ll link you to documents for family histories, but a lot of times it doesn’t work and it leads nowhere.”
The house was built in the late 1800s by James Drew and his wife, Katherine Drew. One of their 12 children, Mike J. Drew, raised eight children of his own on the property. The last resident of the house, Lucy Marie Drew, was born in 1909 and died in 2000. The remainders of her hospice equipment are still in what was the formal dining room.
We make our way upstairs, cautious not to touch the beautifully hand-carved bannister. We carefully check each step to make sure it can bear our weight.
On the second floor, there is a door out to the upper porch with the key still in the lock. The key turns, but not all the way. It seems impossible to separate the door from its frame without damaging it.
Across from the porch door, we find old clothes strewn about the floor of a child’s bedroom and a playhouse shaped like a barn next to a rotting twin mattress. Next to the porch, a teal dresser blocks half of the doorway leading to a pink bedroom. Light shines from the window atop the door into the hallway and reflects off of a glass bottle of Windex.
Olson mentions that properties occasionally have a foreboding feeling about them. “I’ve heard some things before: a door shutting, little things like that,” Olson says. “But it’s more the feeling of the property that has ever scared me more than anything.”
Olson has never encountered anything that appeared supernatural, but Bryant has. “Once, I was walking in the basement [of an abandoned factory] and I’m walking through an inch of water,” Bryant says. “All of a sudden I heard ‘Go!’ So I just turned around and ran out of there.” Later, Bryant realized that the voice likely belonged to a squatter or homeless person. But in the moment, he wasn’t willing to chance it.
Urbexing can be risky at times because, unless you get direct permission from the property owner, urban exploration is considered trespassing in the Midwest. This can bring pricey tickets or jail time.
However, most urban explorers draw the line at breaking and entering. If there isn’t an open door or window to come through, they usually skip the property. Olson hasn’t had much trouble with the law, but she remembers a few run-ins.
“I’ve had owners come up once in awhile. Usually they’re skeptical at first, like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you looking at my house?’” Olson says. “But if I explain to them ‘I’m just looking at it, taking pictures,’ tell them that I think it’s beautiful, they’ll usually tell me a little bit about the family history. I’ve never really had anyone get upset before.”
The majority of the time, somebody actually owns the houses that Urbexers explore. They’re just rarely cared for. An upstairs bedroom was once brightly painted green and cherry, but the colors have mostly faded. There are some discarded cans of paint and other supplies, as if somebody had once meant to refurbish the second floor. The back half of the Drew house is rotting and sinking into the ground — it separates from the more intact parts of the building along a seam of cracked plaster and exposed boards. We don’t dare go down the back stairs, too wary of wood rot and tetanus.
That’s the second large concern of urban explorers; the condition of the property and the possible danger of walking in a building that’s been abandoned to weather and nature for decades.
“I’ve had issues where I went into places and you just never know what’s going to be in there,” Bryant says. “One time, I felt something in my shoe and I looked and there’s all these metal shards everywhere.”
“I have stepped on quite a few nails, that’s for sure,” Olson adds. “I had one go about an inch into my foot. I was hobbling around, like a gimp, for a week after that. So, now I wear pretty thick combat boots.”
As we exit the property, we try to snap more photos of the exterior to capture the forgotten beauty of this long-abandoned house. The house itself whistles a little in the wind, the cracks in the glass allowing the air inside to resonate. We hear the crunching of gravel under tires, and a kind voice asks us what, exactly, we think we’re doing.
After seeing our cameras and checking to see if we have any outstanding warrants, the sheriff lets us off with a warning. As we drive away, we take one last glance at the forlorn Victorian house before continuing on down the isolated Iowa backroads.