Tombstone raises questions
When Wilhelmine Stelting was born, her parents might have named her after the Queen of the Netherlands or after a Prussian princess.
However, the only thing really known about her is that she was born September 15, 1856 and she died July 3, 1902. Someone inscribed those dates, along with her name, on a gravestone that rests on the edge of a cattle pasture along 180th Road just outside the southwest city limits of Marion.
Jerry Dieter, who owns the land where her marker was recently rediscovered, knows nothing about Stelting. Even though that gravestone has been on family property for as long as he can remember, he can only guess where she came from, who she was, or even how her gravestone came to lie along his fence line.
“When my parents bought the place in 1954 the pasture was all grass, there was only one tree, so a lot of that has changed,” Dieter said. “I remember my dad talking about a gravestone out in the grass, but I was never that interested in it at the time.”
Lloyd Meier, Marion resident who currently leases the pasture for cattle, found the gravestone when he was stretching fence along the road.
“I was just taking out the last of the cedar trees there and stretching the fence,” Meier said. “All of the sudden there it was. I brushed it off and tried to read it but it was all in German. It looks like the base has been broken off, but at one time someone cared enough to make a very nice marker. I just don’t know who it was.”
Meier and his grandson, Jesse Meier, cleaned off the stone a bit and tried to make out the letters inscribed there.
“We wrote down HIER RUHET IN FRIEDEN AUGUST J GATE VOR WILHEMINE STELTING GEB DEN 15 SEPT 1856 GEST DEN 3 JULY 1902,” Meier said. “But the letters are worn off, close together, and hard to make out.”
Dieter said county road crews cut the trees along the ditch just a few months ago, exposing the fence line and the possible gravesite.
“My neighbors asked if they could pick up some of the hedge wood there and also mentioned they saw the gravestone,” he said. “It would be interesting to know more about it, but the property has been in our family for a longtime, and before that it was owned by a long time dairy farmer. The name on the stone is not familiar to this area that I know of.”
Dieter said he thought the stone might have been misplaced or stolen from a different cemetery and just left along the road in the grass, as there are no other gravestones in the area and no connections to relatives of the woman in question. The only link, in his mind, is the German wording, which might indicate it came from some of the cultural groups scattered throughout Marion County.
“I have no idea where it came from,” he said. “There are some old Mennonite cemeteries around Durham with tombstones all in German,” he said. “I haven’t seen too many of those around Marion.”
A group of settlers traveled from Emporia to Marion County in 1860 in search of virgin farmland. They stopped along the Cottonwood River and decided to stay, founding the city of Marion-Centre in June 1860. Later Centre was dropped from the name.
George Griffith, one of the settlers, was the first to build a shanty on the site where the Santa Fe Depot now stands. He filed a homestead claim on August 8, 1860 on land that possibly included the Dieter tract on the southwest edge of current city limits.
According to abstract history at the Marion County Courthouse, the Santa Fe Railroad first owned the land where Stelting’s stone now lies. After Griffith purchased large tracts of property from the railroad, he began to parcel it out to settlers arriving to settle in the area.
Registered deeds show Griffith sold property to in the southwest quarter of Section 5 of the Center ‘S’ plat to B. S. Shreve in 1876 and Samuel H. Grimes in 1886.
“I remember my dad bought our farm from the Grimes family,” Dieter said. “They were dairy farmers.
According to Brian Stucky, Marion County historical specialist, there were several dairies and a mill owned by Mennonite families in the Marion area in the early 1900’s.
“A lot of Mennonites settled in Marion County after getting off the train where it ended at Florence and Peabody in 1874,” Stucky said. “They dispersed out in several directions, so it is possible there is a German connection to the Stelting gravestone.”
Stucky said it was not unusual for families to bury their loved ones in single graves on their own property.
“There was a time from 1874 to at least 1886, and even longer in some areas, when churches and cemeteries had not yet been incorporated, so it was customary to bury loved ones along fence rows or under trees on family property,” he said.
Dieter said now that the tombstone has been rediscovered, he would like to find out to whom it belongs.
“I just hope nobody comes along and disturbs it or steals it,” he said. “If somebody could find out where it should go, I’d be glad to give back to the family.”
Meier said he planned to put a fence around the possible gravesite to keep his cattle from stepping on it and breaking the stone down further.
“This is a piece of our town’s history,” he said. “It is important to somebody. It is important to me that it gets taken care of.”
Stucky said there were laws governing care of registered cemeteries and those same laws should effectively protect single gravesite areas.
German writing on Stelting’s headstone reads, “Hier Ruhet in Frieden August J, Gate Vor Wilhemine Stelting. Loosely translated, it means, “Here rests in peace ….”
Trees that once hid the gravestone from sight have been removed but grass is greening around it, birds are singing nearby, and clouds float effortlessly above. All seems peaceful in what was once possibly Stelting’s world.
However, those who see the stone left in her memory continue to wonder — who was she, where did she come from, how did she die, and what is her connection to the history of Marion County.