Brian Jacobson

Milwaukee’s Secret “Treasure”

It was buried in 1981 but no one knows where. Will the cask ever be unearthed?

By - Oct 7th, 2013 12:59 pm
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Similar ceramic cask.

Similar ceramic cask.

There is a treasure of sorts, a ceramic cask buried somewhere in Milwaukee. It’s a mystery over three decades old that had been forgotten until the internet forums picked up on it, long after the valuable reward prizes (to those who find the casks in each city where they were buried) had been auctioned off to cover a company’s bankruptcy proceedings. But if you solve the puzzle and dig up the cask, you will be a worldwide web legend—and probably fined by the Milwaukee County Parks Department.

Back in 1981, an enterprising young book publisher from New York named Byron Preiss decided to promote his company’s latest book, a fantasy satire titled “The Secret,” by flying to 12 cities across America and Canada then burying an ornate, one-of-a-kind cask that contained a ceramic key in each one. If the reader examined the appendix pages and figured out which of the 12 riddles paired up with a corresponding fantasy-styled painting (which also contains visual clues), and then went hunting and dug up the cask, he or she was to send the ceramic key to Preiss. He would then reward the finder with a precious birthstone as seen in each painting. Each emerald, opal, ruby or amethyst was valued around $1,000 at the time.

Byron Preiss

Byron Preiss

It has been determined with fair certainty that Painting 10 and Verse 8 match up for Milwaukee. However, deciphering and following these clues is an ambiguous mess. If you don’t want to figure them out all on your own, I’m including a spoiler-heavy “Secret” entry on my blog here.

Out of all the buried boxes continent-wide, only two were ever located.  The first happened in 1983, by a trio of high school students who followed the clues to a quiet corner of Grant Park in Chicago. They were rewarded with a gemstone by Preiss.

The second was found in 2004, by a New Jersey attorney who grew up with the books and subscribed to an online forum called “TreasureNet.” He found that cask in a secluded part of the Greek Cultural Gardens in Cleveland. It took Preiss awhile to find the key to the lockbox, since he had not used it in 22 years, but he eventually awarded a gemstone to the armchair treasure hunter.

In a press article from the time, Preiss said he would not reveal the other locations, considering the game still ‘on’.

The Secret

The Secret

When the book first came out, it was met with middling reviews and sales. Preiss would go on to varying heights of success as an editor and publisher with such fringe genres as educational comic books, celebrity children’s books, audiobook biographies, and even a foray into the first home computer text-based adventure games. But he was not remembered for “The Secret”.

Less than a year after the last cask was found, Preiss was killed in a car accident. He had promised in 1984 that upon his death the locations were to be revealed in papers kept in the safe deposit box. These papers were never found.

His two companies, Byron Preiss Visual Publications and iBooks, Inc. fell apart without him and filed for bankruptcy in 2006. His holdings were auctioned off to support his wife and daughters—and that included the gemstones. So the only reward left for the hunters is the artistic and bragging value of an intact box made by New York artist Jo-Ellen Trilling.

Another artist involved in the project, John Jude Palencar, was at the time an unknown painter and illustrator who was given his first professional work by Preiss. Palencar has gone on to great renown and awards for his art, and today he cringes when people mention “the Secret.” They expect him to know the answer. But he was only given Polaroids of landmarks and clues to include and claims not to know where many of the casks are buried. (However, in the Cleveland case, he stated in an interview that he had watched over Preiss while he dug.)

A number of enthusiasts have been great resources for figuring out interlocking clues and themes running throughout each painting. In some illustrations, numbers are hidden that reveal geographic coordinates to the city it belongs with. In others, a tree branch or a flowing robe may match a coastline or river. For every obvious clue, there is a missing clue or one that has been lost to time.

Painting #10

Painting #10

In painting #10, a robed juggler stands in front of a bleak landscape. In the foggy distance, a silhouette upon the rocks looks like a castle. Among the objects flying around in a circle include a key, a walking cane, and what looks like a millstone. The faraway castle looks exactly like the outline of Milwaukee’s City Hall—when standing at the front door of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

In the poem ‘verse’ 8, there are obvious references to landmarks that might refer to Milwaukee:

View the three stories of Mitchell
As you walk the beating of the world
At a distance in time
From three who lived there

One could guess the three Mitchell Park Domes. You can throw out Mitchell Airport as well as the Mitchell Building on Michigan and Water Streets—which has five stories. But you might start at the Wisconsin Club—first called the Deutscher Club, which took over what was originally the three-story Mitchell mansion—and work your way downtown with some rough further clues. Or you could start at Mitchell Hall, at UW-Milwaukee, which is three stories tall. And consider that the building was specifically named for all three famous generations of Mitchells—Alexander the banker, John the congressman, and Billy the father of the U.S. Air Force.

Milwaukee City Hall

Milwaukee City Hall

I asked Yance Marti to weigh in. The author of “Missing Milwaukee: Lost Buildings in Milwaukee” is also one of the more respected avatars (known as “Neutrino”) on a forum thread looking for the treasure. While we agree on some points, we have fundamentally different ideas on where the treasure is buried in the end. We both agree it may never be found—as the Milwaukee landscape has changed and the policies surrounding digging holes on public land have become stricter.

Yance states: “I started working downtown in 1985. Through photography and a few classes at MATC, I started to explore a little bit of downtown through the camera. So I became familiar with how the city was laid out before more changes started to happen in the 1990s. Someone posted about “The Secret” on a forum earlier this summer (in 2013) and it seemed to me like an interesting blend of puzzle.” Yance felt his knowledge of the city as it was 30 years ago would give him an advantage over younger hunters.

“So I followed some ideas based on the clearest clues even though there wasn’t a direct chain of connections. That theory did not lead to a specific enough location to start digging.”

We both think that the cask is buried in a park, near a more secluded section where 1980s Milwaukee residents would not question a man digging a 3-foot hole.  Most of Preiss’s clues involve historical statues or landmarks, as well as a turn-of-phrase that informs a little about local history but no clear map direction. Unfortunately, Preiss thought the objects would be found right away, so he used easy clues like birch trees (which could be gone by now) and specifically arcane fantasy references for those who actually read the whole book.

So what would it take to locate this buried treasure in Milwaukee now? I talked to Kevin Cullen, archaeologist at Discovery World, who has led several site explorations over the past five years called “Art and Archaeology of Me” along with Heidi Heistad. The program works with local high school students to better understand the background of their own neighborhoods — an area of study called “Digital Literacy Design.”

If you know exactly where to dig but need confirmation, the group can use a Ground-Penetrating Radar device (imagine a push lawn mower combined with remote-sensing device that ‘pings’ down into the soil at ultra (UHF) or Very High (VHF) frequencies).

Cullen states: “The unit we have is 500 MHz, so there are different wavelengths these units will process. It slows down when it hits a more or less dense material. When you’re talking about something that small, it would hard to see it on the screen. Even if you were looking for something in a specific space, the only way to prove it is by ground truthing, which means excavation.”

Still, Cullen adds some grounds for optimism: Ceramic,” he says, “would be notable, but you need a general spot of ground.” And ”even a shaft dug down” (as would have been necessary to bury the cask) “would show as a noted disturbance.”

Before you pony up big bucks to rent the construction-grade GPR machine, however, you still must get permission from the Milwaukee County Parks Department to dig in a specific space. If you’ve ever read the complete rules regarding geocaching placement, this is worse.

Parks spokesman Brian Russart confirmed that a treasure hunter would need a “Rite of Entry” permit even to begin exploratory findings such as metal probes or GPR machines. If you could build an event around it, with resources concentrated at full effort with media attention, it might be looked on more favorably. A hunch and a shovel?  Not so much.

“The treasure could be found but people have to be able to look back into the landscape as it was 30 years ago,” Marti says. “In some places, things have changed immensely, even in downtown parks. If someone can look back into that past through historical aerial pictures and/or photos, then they may be able to piece it all together and find out where it is buried.”

Of course, he adds, that’s assuming the cask hasn’t been destroyed by a construction project.

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2 thoughts on “Milwaukee’s Secret “Treasure””

  1. GT says:

    Of course even a whimsical treasure hunt would be stifled by the County.

  2. D says:

    Great, fun article. I kind of want to look now

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