Town redefines itself

Chicago Sun Times/November 29, 1998

Stelle. Ill. -- Richard Kieninger believed a worldwide disaster would destroy most of the planet on May 5, 2000, so 25 years ago, he built the tiny town of Stelle to ride out the storm in an isolated part of northern Illinois.

Now Kieninger is in jail in Texas, and few if any of Stelle's 100 residents still believe his predictions will come true.

But the town, 30 miles southwest of Kankakee, has established itself as a center for solar energy and is marketing itself as an environ mentally conscious community open to all.

But for the hum of its wind-powered generators spinning in the breeze and the glint of solar energy panels, the town would appear to e an average suburban sub-division plunked down in the middle of Illinois corn fields.

The sun and the wind provide the primary power for Stelle's telephone, cable and water systems.

Solar energy was not a part of Kieninger's original plan, said Steve Bell, a director of the Stelle Group, the religious and philosophical organization founded by Kieninger. "But one of the intentions of Stelle was to develop a civilization worth preserving and to develop technology to ensure that civilization would be survivable."

While Stelle residents are proud of their community, they're a little nervous when asked about the past.

"Some people are uncomfortable with the perception of being associated with someone like Kieninger," said Tim Wilhelm, executive director of the Stelle Group.

About a third of the residents belong to the Stelle Group, and the rest are either former members or have never joined, Wilhelm said.

Kieninger lived in Rogers Park and believed he was the reincarnation of an Egyptian pharaoh.

He wrote the 1963 book The Ultimate Frontier, a mix of biography, apocalyptic prophecies, Christianity and Eastern mysticism. It was the drawing card that attracted many to the community he founded in 1973.

But by the time Carolyn Jacobson arrived in 1979, "People were not listening to Richard."

'We were all going. 'What do you mean we can't have things like clotheslines?,' Jacobson said.

"In the beginning, there were high standards of living up to the philosophy," said a member who knew Carroll English, in the Rogers Park days. "But when you have something like that, you feel like you have the right to judge other people. Now here's none of that. There's a lot of tolerance now. We were very short on tolerance in the early days."

Kieninger's authoritarian style and reputed womanizing ultimately lost him his credibility with his followers, and he was asked to leave Stelle in 1980.

By 1982, the transition was completed and all of the homes were sold by the group to residents.

Kieninger wound up in Texas, where he became involved in the Texas Republic, an organization that believes the state was illegally annexed bv the United States in 1845.

He and seven others were convicted in April of mail fraud charges for issuing false checks backed by the Republic.

But the town he built lives on, if in a somewhat different manner than he intended. Today, homes in Stelle sell for $60,000 and developed lots start at less than $8,000.

A homeowners association is the closest thing to government the town has, and residents pay $42.50 a month per unit in assessments.

Residents get free local telephone and basic cable and have satellite access to the Internet.

A cooperative buys $2,500 worth of health food products a month from a wholesaler. There is a community garden and a communi ty lunch twice a week.

It's still a half-hour drive to buy groceries or gasoline.

It was the small-town feel that drew Steve Dydna to Stelle 16 years ago his wife, Nichola. He sent his children to the private Montessori school, but he never became a member of the Stelle Group.

"I like the ideas that flow through here," he said. "Nothing is too unusual to investigate. You're not looked on as somebody strange when you investigate something out of the ordinary,"

Dydyna drives 1-1/2 hours each way to his job near the Loop but considers it worth the trip. "I love my home, I love the community, so it's a little sacrifice," he said.

Spenser Keys arrived in 1976 and is no longer a member of the Stelle Group. "I really appreciate the serenity. A lot of the ideas here are psychological or spiritual or what you might call New Age," he said.

Do any residents still believe that disaster will strike on May 5, 2000?

"We don't know," Wilhelm said. "The only way we're going to know is if it happens. We won't be disappointed if it doesn't happen."

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