Before I can even ask him a single question, Travel Channel’s intrepid Monumental Mysteries host Don Wildman quizzes me about my current location. When I tell him Milwaukee, he offers up a fascinating story about the underground caverns throughout the Midwest that German immigrants used to age and cool the first icy, refreshing pilsner beer Americans had ever quaffed.
A fast trip to Google afterward reveals he’s spot-on. The Miller Brewing Co. in my hometown sports 160-year-old, man-made caves some 60 feet below ground.
That’s just the kind of guy Wildman — the son of a history teacher dad and the talkative baby of five kids — is.
“When I was a kid, I was obnoxious with questions to my parents,” he laughs. “I was the fifth of five kids and I was the only boy, so I was the different voice in the car, and I was always asking all kinds of relentless questions. ‘Why is the moon following us?!’ I remember the day my parents gave me the three really thick Tell Me Why books. Remember those? Arkady Leokum wrote them, and I ate those books up. I loved them! And truthfully, I have not grown up past that point. The education aspect of passing on facts and ideas is rooted in my family background and a part of my upbringing and a very important value. So it’s really comfortable to be that obnoxious person who wants to tell ya stuff!”
Starting tonight, Wildman gets a fresh chance to share the untold backstories of some America’s most intriguing structures, statues and other historic markers — from the iconic to the obscure — in an all-new season of Monumental Mysteries. From the strange story of Seattle’s controversial Vladimir Lenin statue to Fruita, Colorado’s permanent homage to Mike the Headless Chicken, Wildman relishes the opportunity to fortify both your understanding of history and your cocktail party attention-grabbers.
“It’s something that people sort of take for granted, because there are all these monuments and statues that are all over the world and all over the country,” Wildman says. “And they’re there for a really good reason — something really happened that somebody wanted to erect a statue or build a monument. There pretty much aren’t any better stories than ones that cause people to do that! So when we started to think about that, it was a really fun idea, because you could do anything from the Statue of Liberty to a gravestone in someone’s backyard. And the breadth of stories represented by memorials and monuments is vast — and very satisfying. People often write in and say ‘I drove past this Civil War statue for 25 years and never knew the story behind this thing!’ That really is very satisfying. I like to have that experience as a host.”
In tonight’s premiere episode, Wildman reveals the monumental tales behind:
• A 65 ft. statue of Lucy the Elephant in Margate City, N.J.
• The grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building, where an act of domestic terrorism shook the country — in 1915.
• A Creole townhouse in New Orleans’ Old French Quarter rumored to have an otherworldly inhabitant.
• Tombstone, Arizona’s infamous “Oriental Saloon” and the death-defying invention that sprang from it.
• Murphy Ranch in the Los Angeles canyons, once the proposed home of a Nazi encampment.
• The Manhattan Municipal building, home base of one of the biggest medical scandals the nation had ever seen.
Asked to choose a highlight, Wildman is predictably, cheerfully conflicted.
“Take the US Capitol, which has this amazing terrorism story from 1915,” he explains. “When you watch this story about a guy who bombs the U.S. Senate, you realize that domestic terrorism — or any kind of terrorism really — is nothing new. And I’m from Jersey and we have the story of Lucy the Elephant from Margate, which is where I went to the beach when I was a kid. But the story that most amazed me is the Murphy Ranch, which is in this sort of rustic canyon area of Los Angeles down toward Santa Monica and Malibu. I’ve done this story on other shows, three different ways, three different times — and this time I felt like we really got it. It’s a story of espionage and a plan to plant a Nazi army in the Los Angeles canyon just prior to World War II. These buildings still stand in the bushes just off of this rustic road in the canyon. Now they’re just covered in graffiti and they’re these old relics and concrete structures, but the visceral feeling of World War II at your doorstep and world domination by a crazy cult — which is what the Nazis really were — is so scary when you’re there. There’s this feeling of the presence of Adolf Hitler right there in the Los Angeles hills. So I like the range of stories from the noble to the absurd.”
When I tell Wildman that my own attachment to the series stems from a fabulous childhood spent crammed into a giant Mercury Marquis and a little Shasta camper with my grandparents and two cousins, soaking up all the sights America had to offer (save, perhaps, Mike the Headless Chicken), he is tickled.
“If you had a Shasta, you were the fancy people!” Wildman laughs. “We were in a Nimrod! We were five kids in a Nimrod tent trailer my dad bought for $300 and it was, like, the biggest day in my life! We would go up and down the East Coast when my dad had off from of school. He was really into the Civil War and Revolutionary War history, so a typical day of vacation would be for my sisters and I to be wandering around a big empty field with my father out ahead of us, having no idea what we were supposed to be doing there, except imagining an army was coming from this side and there was battle over here.
“Those were the earliest “monumental experiences” I ever had, trying to imagine what went on in those big empty fields,” he continues. “But that works for my business because that’s often what I’m trying to do in a tunnel or an empty building — you’re trying to bring it to life for people. And I know that can be done, because I did a lot of it, even as a kid, and I know the satisfaction that comes from having conjured it up for yourself. So I have no doubt that there are a lot of people out there — even in this day and age when people think people don’t do this sort of thing anymore — who are really passionate about history because they really love that feeling and love that imagination exercise.”
Plus, says Wildman, Americans are hardwired to love their towns, their roots and the historical happenings that make them unique.
“Americans are really civic-minded,” he says. “That’s a lovely thing about this country — Americans care about their towns and the stories of their towns and this is a show that really plugs right into that pride. I like that. For people to care deeply, they have to focus locally. And I think the most interesting conversations you can have are the ones that begin with, ‘Hey, you know what that thing is doing down there in town …?’ That’s what it’s all about. That’s what our show is about.”
For Wildman, it also goes one very important step deeper.
“My dad was a history teacher and I am always completely charmed that I am able to do the same thing, but just in a different classroom. That what it feels like to me!”
A new season of Monumental Mysteries airs Friday nights at 9/8CT on Travel Channel.
Images/video: Travel Channel