Funk’s Grove, IL

When the folks in Bloomington-Normal want to step out in the country they go to Funk’s Grove, a dense 1,200-acre valley of oak and maple trees about 15 miles south of the city on old Route 66. You could drive right past it if it weren’t for the small sign on the side of the road advertising Funk’s Grove Maple Sirup, which has been made in the area since 1824. Tom Vielhak, a 58-year-old retired mechanic, and his 31-year-old son, Chris, make the trip often. Last October they were taking a walk along a trail near the Sugar Grove Nature Center when Tom saw something unusual.

“It started getting twilight,” Tom says. “Something hairy was standing beside a tree like this, looking at me.” His shoulders droop and his face falls, like someone standing in a police lineup. “It freaked me out. I’m six-one and it was about seven feet tall. It’s got a raunchy, rancid meat smell. It had a deep growl. He backed up and disappeared.”

In Funk’s Grove people often see deer, coyote, and fox. But there are no bears, nor any other animal that might fit Tom’s description.

“It’s not a bear,” Tom says.

Chris shakes his head. “It’s not a bear.”

“Ain’t no bear around here. This thing has two legs and it is tall.”

“Very tall.”

That’s why he and Chris are convinced they saw a bigfoot.

Chris, who works as a security guard at a Bloomington mall, claims to have seen the creature several times since last summer. He even tried to photograph it in the woods in July. “After Chris took the picture,” his father says, “the camera ceased to function.” Chris’s closest encounter came last August, while he was driving home from his former job as a security guard at the FBI building in Springfield. “I was going slow because I didn’t want to hit any deer,” he says. “But there were no deer around, which was kind of odd. Something hit the back of my car and pushed it down.” He points to several long silver scratches near the trunk of his black 2002 Mustang. “There’s the claw marks. I got out of there quick. I didn’t stick around to find out what it was.”

After that Chris started doing research, and came across a Web site for an organization out of Menlo Park, California, called Searching for Bigfoot, run by entertainment producer Tom Biscardi. When he isn’t busy tracking Sasquatch, the 57-year-old Biscardi runs Celebrity Images, a stable of R & B and doo-wop tribute acts–including faux versions of the Supremes, the Marvelettes, the Chi-Lites, the Drifters–that tour in revue shows around the country. Biscardi first became interested in bigfoot in 1967, after he saw Roger Patterson’s famous eight-millimeter footage of the beast near Bluff Creek, California, on The Tonight Show. He wondered, as the years passed, “How the hell can we send a man to the moon, but we can’t find this creature?”

Biscardi started leading bigfoot expeditions in the early 70s, and today he makes up to ten trips a year–funded in part by his music-biz revenue–to hot spots in northern California, Montana, and Texas. Following up on tips from the Vielhaks, he came to Funk’s Grove in mid-February as part of a four-man posse with infrared and trip cameras outfitted with night-vision scopes and thermal imagers. The group spent three days in the woods, but aside from a few fuzzy photographs, they came out empty-handed. In his diary, Biscardi concluded that “although we were not successful in finding any physical signs of the creature during our short stay, we do feel the area is capable of supporting a large primate and we would like to do more intensive searching in the near future.”

Although he says there are over 3,500 bigfeet in the U.S., Biscardi has seen only five, the most recent one in northern California over a year ago. “There’s a migrational path that these creatures take in the spring and fall each year: north to south, south to north,” he says, adding that the one the Vielhaks saw was probably en route from Minnesota or Michigan. “When these things move, they go quicker than hell. Where it would take us all day to go five miles, these things would move five miles in minutes. They have a stride of anywhere from 52 to 78 inches. They’re primarily nocturnal. They feel secure in caves, caverns, abandoned mines and such. There are culverts in Funk’s Grove where these creatures could be hiding. There are downed large trees where they could have found shelter.”

The Vielhaks can point to physical evidence in the woods they say verifies their story, including a twisted tree branch with what they say are claw marks and muddy, torn-up sections of the trail. But according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud, the state has yet to dispatch anyone to Funk’s Grove to investigate, and nearby residents haven’t reported other sightings.

Debby Funk, who’s lived in the area for 31 years and operates the maple syrup business with her husband, Mike, a fifth-generation Funk, says if there’s a creature out there, it’s never caused them any trouble. “We’ve never seen anything here,” she says. “The only problem we’ve had is squirrels chewing on our tubing.” Marlene Leesman has been a clerk at the Dixie Truck Stop in McLean, about five miles south of Funk’s Grove, since 1960. “People are skeptical,” she says. “I’ve never heard of anything like this, and I’ve lived here all my life.” One family stuck a sign in their front yard that reads, HEY LOOK! GENUINE SASQUATCH DROPPINGS. $3 each, 2 for $5.

The Vielhaks say not all their neighbors are so skeptical, but none has publicly supported them. “After it came out in the local paper, a woman called me and said she was walking on a trail and saw him looking at her,” Tom says. “She said, ‘I know you’re not crazy, because I saw it too.’ But she wanted to remain anonymous.” Another local family privately told Chris they’d seen a baby bigfoot while hunting for mushrooms near the grove. “People have been making fun of us and saying we’re nuts,” Chris says, but the family is sticking together. His mother, Cathy, who’s been married to Tom for 35 years, says the markings on Chris’s car are proof enough for her. “I believe there’s something down there,” she says, “but I don’t want to see what it is. It’s all kind of spooky to me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.