It was an emotional family history and a deep magnetic pull that drew Brian Stucky of Goessel into the search for 17 children, whose gravesites were lost 138 years ago and found by him recently near Peabody.
“I vividly remember my grandmother telling us her story, with tears in her eyes, how Freni, her baby sister, died and she did not know where she was buried,” Stucky said. “She spent many years looking for her, as did the relatives of the other children. One day I figured I could help and that is why I became involved.”
Stucky’s ancestors, Benjamin and Veronica Stucky, immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1874. At that time, the train line that brought them from the east coast shipping docks ended at Peabody. About 8,000 Russian Mennonites stepped off the train at Peabody, and then dispersed into the surrounding forming communities in Halstead, Burton, Moundridge, Goessel, Hesston, and other places.
“The men from our group went to scout and buy land in Mound and Turkey Creek,” Stucky said. “When they returned three weeks later they found that almost all the children had become sick ... as many as 14 died, maybe more.”
Since the Mennonites were new to the town and there was not an established cemetery in Peabody at the time, there was no place to bury the children.
Stucky said one of the settlers learned of a local farmer, Henry Hornberger, who had recently buried his own 14-year-old daughter, Anna Mary, on his land north of Peabody. The Mennonites received permission to bury their own children there and carried them three miles north, as they did not have any other means of transportation yet.
The exact location of this burial site was not known until many decades later, however, because the Mennonites left town to settle near Moundridge and Halstead as soon as their children were buried.
Stucky, a self-proclaimed trail finder, became involved with the search for the missing children’s graves several years ago, shortly after discovering he had a talent for dowsing.
Dowsing refers to the detection of disturbed earth or magnetic bacteria in the soil, often the result of digging graves, wagon wheel ruts, or even Indian trails.
“You know, for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone that I did dowsing, because I wasn’t sure of it myself, and needed more testing,” Stucky said. “I was afraid people would think I’m crazy. But now I’ve done this for years, and over 1,500 miles of trails, and 500 pages of trail statistics, 30 cemeteries, etc. I feel pretty consistent with what I am doing.”
As a member of the Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association (SMCHA), Stucky’s interest in the family story of lost children buried somewhere in Marion County was heightened when a January 1875 newspaper article from Elkhart, Ind., came to light.
Stucky said that an unnamed correspondent from Peabody was recorded in the Herald of Truth newspaper as saying, ‘I found this country completely devastated by the grasshoppers, but the farmers now have out a very fine crop of wheat. They seem well pleased with the country, even though Brother Stucky’s party buried about 14 children here on Brother H. Hornberger’s farm.”
“This was the first record we found of anyone knowing about the burial of these children,” Stucky said. “A quick check of land records showed that this Henry Hornberger farm was exactly the site of what is today’s Catlin Mennonite Cemetery. So, we know that the Swiss children are in this cemetery.”
Stucky went to the Catlin Cemetery board and requested permission to dowse the site to see if he could find any unmarked graves.
The Catlin Cemetery lies one mile west and three and one half miles north of Peabody on Mustang Road. According to Catlin Cemetery board member and caretaker Don Stutzman, the first burial at this site was pioneer Henry Hornberger’s daughter in 1873. The site then became a community burial ground, and in 1885, a group of Mennonites who built a church there in 1886 purchased the land. In 1961, the group disbanded and the church building was removed. However, 118 marked and unmarked graves remained under the care of the Catlin Cemetery Board and the Catlin Township Board.
The SMCHA hired a licensed geological physicist in 2010 to scientifically determine if the graves were indeed on the site, but her results were inconclusive.
“She conducted a thorough investigation,” Stucky said. “But at the time, it was Jan. 2 and very cold with snow and ice on the ground, I wondered if the results might not be affected.”
Stucky was particularly disappointed in the lack of scientific findings, but not persuaded that the unmarked graves were not there.
In December 2009, when the ground was free of cover, Stucky had dowsed the area and found a section of unused land in the cemetery where seven graves lay, side-by-side, in a row.
“It was right along the west edge of the plot,” Stucky said. “I knew without a doubt, that these were the children’s graves. With my dowsing rod I could tell not only how many graves were there, but could mark the corners of each grave and see the differences in size, according to the ages of the children buried there.”
Several times since that December finding, Stucky has been back to check his readings on the burial sites at Catlin Cemetery, including a recent visit Saturday.
Covering his hand with baby powder and then tightly gripping an L-shaped, 1-inch thick, copper rod, Stucky demonstrated his grave-finding technique.
Through no voluntary movement of his own, the rod swung sharply down as Stucky walked over several possible gravesites. He placed yellow flags at each corner and soon marked out seven graves along the western fence and seven more in a row just east of the first line. He placed pink flags to indicate where a memorial stone will be placed by the SMCHA in fall.
“There is no doubt in my mind these are the graves of the lost children,” Stucky said. “We have a list of the children and their ages, and I can almost tell people which child is buried where by the size of the grave according to age.”
The names include several children who died in 1874, but the SMCHA research committee and area historians, including Chuck Good and Marilyn Jones of Peabody, and Arnold Wedel of Newton, in addition to Stucky and Stutzman, revealed there is a possibility that not all 17 children may have been buried at that site, with only 14 graves discovered by Stucky.
“We want to do this right, so the wording on the memorial stone we are planning will say ‘Those who are buried here are among the following’,” Stucky said.
The SMCHA plans to dedicate a memorial stone for the Swiss Volhynian children’s memorial stone in late August or September.
Children’s names on the list of the lost include Johann Albrecht, Dec 9, 1872 to Sept. 13 1874; Tobias Dirks, Nov. 18, 1872 to Sept. 1874; Freni Flickinger, Jan. 24, 1872 to Sept. 1874; Katharina Gering, Aug. 7, 1871 to 1874; Peter Gering, June 21, 1873 to Sept. 1874; Peter P. Kaufman, Feb. 24, 1871 to Sept. 15, 1874; Anna Krehbiel, Nov. 15, 1871 to Sept. 10, 1874; Elisabeth Krehbiel, Mar. 2, 1872 to 1874; Elisabeth Schrag, July 25, 1873 to 1874; Katharina Schrag, Oct. 16, 1872 to Sept. 15, 1874; Andreas Strauss, Jan. 28, 1872 to 1874; Freni Stucky, Oct. 16, 1873 to Sept. 9, 1874; Anna Voran, July 18, 1871 to 1874; Jacob Voran, Oct. 29, 1873 to 1874; Maria Waltner, Aug. 1, 1872 to 1874; Frances Wedel, Oct. 29, 1869 to Sept. 25, 1874; Salamon Wedel, Mar. 10, 1872 to Sept. 25, 1874.
For more information on Stucky’s dowsing techniques visit his website at http//www.thetrailfinder.com.