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Lost gravestone returns home

Staff writer

After more than 60 years, the mystery of a solitary gravestone in a pasture south of Marion has been solved, and the stone has been returned to its rightful home at Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Cemetery.

Jerry Dieter brought the grave marker to the attention of Marion Cemetery Board in 2013. The lettering on the marker was chiseled in old German, and appeared to belong to Wilhelmina Stelting.

“The stone was probably there before 1954, when mom and dad bought the land, because it was mostly buried in the ground and just the surface was showing,” Dieter said. “I never thought about it much as a kid, but dad always talked about a gravestone out in the grass.”

Cemetery board member Rosalie Schmidtberger decided to investigate the background of the gravestone.

She determined that there was no grave at the site, because county records indicated no Stelting ever owned the land on which the gravestone sat.

“When I checked the death records at the county clerk’s office, the only Steltings I found were buried at Ebenfeld Cemetery,” Schmidtberger said. “I walked the cemetery twice looking for Wilhelmina Stelting. All I found was a stone for an August Stelting, but the dates were different.”

After her second trip to the cemetery, Schmidtberger sought assistance from Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College. The center is often consulted for genealogical research.

“I didn’t want to lose a piece of local history, so I contacted Peggy,” Schmidtberger said. “She knows a lot about area history.”

Goertzen translated the timeworn German inscription, and discovered the gravestone was not actually Wilhelmina’s, as it was initially assumed.

“Here rests in peace August J., husband of Wilhelmina Stelting, born 15 September 1856, died July 1902,” Goertzen interpreted. “This is the grave marker for August J. Stelting, not his wife Wilhelmina.”

Goertzen hunted for records of August J. Stelting in two primary sources kept in Tabor’s archives.

One source was a German Mennonite Brethren newspaper, ‘the Zionsbote,’ which means ‘the Messenger from Zion.’ The other was a membership record book for Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church.

“The Mennonites were fabulous record keepers,” Goertzen said. “I found August’s record in both sources.”

She said J.J. Penner, correspondent from Ebenfeld in 1901 wrote the notice of death for August Stelting.

“The newspaper was generated at the time of August’s death,” Goertzen said. “It confirmed the church record.”

Both sources also matched the gravestone in every detail except for the year of birth and year of death, which were each a year off.

“It was very common for mistakes like this to be made, especially considering that many of them had to get used to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar,” Goertzen said. “Their counting wasn’t always perfect. And once it was in stone it couldn’t be removed.”

Recently Goertzen and her husband Gaylord, Joel Suderman, and Dana and Donna Dalke teamed up to unearth the gravestone and transport it back to Ebenfeld Cemetery. They placed it behind a replacement a stone the Stelting family had put there years ago.

“It was exciting,” Goertzen said. “I got to help return the lost gravestone to its home.”

Last modified Jan. 28, 2015

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