Martha Berner, Carole Skienar and Rosalie Schmidtberger have a passion for researching their families’ histories they love to share with others.
The three gathered at Marion City Library Monday evening at a talk sponsored by Marion County Historical Society to let an audience of researchers know more about the resources they have available — and about an ongoing project to keep many other precious family histories from being forever lost.
The Marion County Cemetery Project began nearly 40 years ago when old gravesites were being plowed over to make way for farms.
Records of the area’s earliest settlers were then often lost or destroyed, spurring an effort identify grave sites and compile them on a database.
“We are meeting here in the library because a lot of the representations about this project are in this Kansas room at the library,” Berner said.
“Indians were likely the earliest persons buried in Marion County,” Berner said, mentioning an unmarked grave site in Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church Cemetery.
The earliest settlers were buried in unmarked graves that followed the Santa Fe Trail near where they died, Berner said, citing Wichita State University history professor Sondra Van Meter’s book “Marion County Kansas, Past and Present,” which she recommends to anyone researching their family’s history.
In it, the author mentions an incident near the Long Springs Station where 11 men were killed, nine of them buried nearby and two thrown down a well.
Fifteen men later froze in an 1885 blizzard and their graves were purported to be near the station’s site, she said.
“We think there are gravesites there, but we don’t have markers for them,” Berner said.
Protecting such sites became a priority of Kansas’ legislature in 1989 when it passed Unmarked Burial Sites Statute which prohibits the destruction of unmarked burial sites.
Cemeteries were platted as settlements formed with Highland Cemetery Association, which later became Marion City Cemetery, the county’s first when it was chartered in 1873.
Some of the earliest marked gravesites in the county include:
- A stone dated from the 1880s in Marion City Cemetery that reads “Darling Bessie.”
- The Marion City Cemetery grave of William P. Shreve, one of the first pioneers to settle in the county.
- The grave of 7-year-old James Doyle, reportedly buried in Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery, who died in 1877.
- The Gale township graveyard of 40 members of the Brunk family who died around 1873.
Reading the cemetery
Records of the county’s deceased were still spotty — or nonexistent — even after cemeteries were established.
When headstones in Doyle Creek Cemetery were vandalized, county commissioners asked if there were records available to help restore them.
“No one knew where the records were,” said Skienar, “That triggered the original reason for the database.”
Then-county clerk Marquette Eilerts was asked to take on a years-long project of a book, “Family Cemeteries and Grave Sites Located in Marion County” that would identify family and public cemeteries and grave sites.
She organized volunteers from nearly 32 of the counties’ townships, historical societies and senior centers.
Skienar recalled how groups of volunteers armed with clipboards worked in a grid, going from stone to stone to take down information from the graves.
Headstones that were too damaged to be read were rubbed with sidewalk chalk, which sometimes bought out the lettering, Skienar said.
Old graveyards were often so overgrown that finding headstones seemed impossible, she said recalling a visit she and Schmidtberger made to an old family cemetery.
“We had already seen one snake in there and we were not ready to start digging in the bushes, she said.
“There were a lot of stickers. But we read it, what we could and realized when were done, we had had added about 15 more names to the list,” she said.
Boards of area cemeteries were asked to bring in their written records, which were entered into a computerized database that Skienar said she volunteered to help compile.
Marion City Cemetery’s burial records were on index cards.
In most cases, the lists of people buried in a cemetery grew after volunteers investigated it in person. The record of burials in Pilsen’s cemetery jumped from 423 to nearly 700 after it was visited.
“That shows the need to get those written records,” she said.
Keeping up the database
Four times a year, boards of Marion County’s cemeteries are asked to submit updated lists of names to update the database.
“Unfortunately it’s volunteers that do this, and some cemeteries are not keeping them up,” said Skienar.
Many of the boards rely on obituaries from local papers to keep track of area deaths.
Berner said she hopes that the database will remain a resource for genealogists and others who are interested in history and Skienar agrees.
“Now that this has all been done, we don’t want the work to be lost,” said Skienar.