Written by Brian D. Stucky Tuesday, 04 September 2012 14:00
It’s a fascinating immigrant story unlike any other. It’s an emotional story passed down among families of the Swiss Volhynian Mennonites of Kansas. And it will be finally memorialized in stone at a dedication service at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept, 23.
In 1874, as thousands of Mennonites migrated from Russia into Kansas, the Swiss Mennonites were the first to settle in the area, near today’s Moundridge. As they came to Peabody in September, they stepped off the train. The men went to scout and buy land in Mound and Turkey Creek townships.
When they returned three weeks later, they discovered that “almost all the children became sick. Some children died. The town had no cemetery at this time. A few miles north there was a place with a few graves. Since there was no other way of transportation, the bodies were carried there and buried.”
It is believed the women and one elderly man dug the graves and buried the children without coffins or funerals. Until recently, that location has been a mystery. Efforts were made over the years to find the location, but with no luck.
Then an article came to light in the January 1875 issue of the Herald of Truth newspaper from Elkhart, Ind. A correspondent from Peabody said: “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. Brother Stucky’s party buried about 14 children here on Brother H. Hornberger’s farm.”
A quick check of land records show this Henry Hornberger farm was the site of what is today’s Catlin Mennonite Cemetery. So, it is virtually certain that the Swiss children are in this cemetery, which is from the northwest corner of Peabody, 3 miles north, 1 west, and ½ north. After 138 years, they have been found.
The Catlin cemetery was not originally a cemetery, but just a farm. It began as Henry Hornberger buried his 15-year-old daughter March 2, 1874.
Groups of “Old” Mennonites from eastern states came to central Kansas perhaps as early as 1871-72, before the large migration of Russian Mennonites in 1874. They settled in areas such as the Brunk Cemetery between Hillsboro and Marion, southeast of Marion, and the Spring Valley church southeast of Canton, which is the oldest Mennonite congregation in the state.
The group that became the Catlin church began worshipping one mile north in the Weaver school. In 1886 Mary and Henry Hornberger sold a parcel of land in the northwest corner of their farm to the Catlin Church Society and a church building was built.
The congregation disbanded in 1962, and later the church was torn down, but the cemetery remains and is well maintained.
A task force of the Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association researched names, designed and arranged for a memorial stone to be placed in the Catlin cemetery.
What makes the story more complex is to identify exactly who these children are.
According to genealogist James W. Krehbiel, author of the book, “Swiss Russian Mennonite Families Before 1874,” a list of as many as 17 children is identified, with some “probably buried at Peabody” and some “possibly buried at Peabody.”
The reason is that some of these names have exact death dates. Some only have “September 1874.” Some are simply identified as having died in “1874.”
It is also known that some children on the journey were buried in a cemetery north of Halstead a few miles.
So, in order to properly memorialize the children at Catlin, the wording on the stone was chosen to read, “Those who are believe to be buried here are among the following” along with the list of all 17 names.
A Sept. 23 dedication service for the memorial stone will feature a variety of speakers and historians who will tell of the history and people; a cemetery tour will follow.
Participants may approach the cemetery from the south if dry, but if it has rained, they will need to approach from the north on the rocked road. It is on Mustang Road between 100th and 110th.
Directions are from Peabody: 3 miles north, 1 west and ½ north; or, 4 north, 1 west, and ½ south. It is suggested that people bring lawn chairs.
Brian D. Stucky teaches at Goessel High School and is an avid local historian.