FORD COUNTY, KANSAS

Amish Family Not Forgotten

Neal Borntrager, left, and Merle Borntrager, center, shovel cement while others smooth it out at the Amish cemetery in Dodge City on Wednesday.


Amish community members in an Amish cemetery in Dodge City on Wednesday.

Several Gather to Restore Old Amish Cemetery

Lovina Borntrager wasn't even 2 years old when she died from the measles in 1908.  Her brother, Danny Borntrager, lived only nine days, before his death in 1909.

Though the infants lived only briefly in the Old Order Amish community south of Dodge City, they haven't been forgotten.

More than 100 years later, they were being tended to by family descendents who gathered at the small rural cemetery last week, pouring concrete to set new grave markers in the abandoned cemetery.

All that remains of the Amish settlement is the cemetery.  Drought, grasshoppers, dust and endless wind caused too much hardship on the crops and those early pioneers.  The last of them left by 1929.

But Wednesday it was as if the local settlement had come alive once again as a group of white bearded Old Order Amish men from Iowa worked, swiftly pouring cement and then with trowels smoothing out the long rows of 35 plots where the new head stones would be placed.  Even local funeral director Phillip Ziegler was out at the cemetery watching in amazement.

"This was covered in weeds," said Ziegler, leaning on the chain-link fence and watching the workers, who had probably raised a few barns in their lifetimes.

Ziegler said he drew curiosity from the monument man when he placed an order for 28 tombstones.  Several of the 35 tombstones didn't need to be replaced.

The workday had been a year in the planning.  Eldon T. Miller and his wife, Nelda, were traveling from Kalona, Iowa, to Colorado a year ago when they decided to see if they could find the old Amish cemetery where Nelda's descendents were buried.

Traveling along 107 Road they stopped at the home of Bob Schneweis, not realizing they were just two miles from the cemetery.

Schneweis, who grew up in the area, was thrilled to meet the couple.  He had been trying to care for and learn more about the cemetery ever since he first discovered it, buried under weeks the size of trees.

"It was in the 1960s when I got on the Richland Township board that I learned there was a cemetery and no one was taking care of it," Schneweis said.

However, the cemetery was vandalized at one time when someone came out and took the skeleton of a 16-year-old girl and the skull of a 2-year-old boy.

Schneweis checked with the Ford County Historical Museum for information about the graveyard.

"They told us there was no activity there, so just plow it up," he said.  "Our township took over and we started to clean it up."

Several farmers in the area collected donations to build a chain-link fence, and the Boy Scouts came and painted its frame.  They began mowing the cemetery.  With all the grooming, they discovered that the headstones were crumbling.

For years, Schneweis has had Amish stopping by his house asking where the cemetery was.  He felt there was enough interest to try to collect money to replace the headstones.

"I thought we should do this before we all kick the bucket," Schneweis said.  As he watched the men work, he marveled at their conscientious work ethic.

"If we had more Amish and Mennonite, the world would be a better place," he said.

Two van loads of descendents from the Amish settlement arrived from Iowa, ready to remove the old headstones and put in the new ones.

In just a year, they had raised $5,977 to cover the cost of placing new headstones.

While none of them working had ever lived in the settlement, they had heard the stories over the years of how their ancestors had struggled to make a go on the high plains of western Kansas.

When most think of the history of Dodge City, hard-living cowboys going wild on Boot Hill after herding cattle up from Texas generally come to mind.  But what most don't know is about a brief moment in time when a gentler group of people tried to eke out a living on the land in Ford County.

The settlement existed five miles south of Dodge City, and stretching west towards neighboring Gray County, from 1906 to 1929.

As early as 1903, advertisements in the Amish newspaper known as the Sugarcreek Budget, were reporting the start up of the Amish settlement, organized by a land agent.

Eventually there would be 63 families, but they came and went rather quickly, hopes dashed because the land agent failed to mention the geography.

Among those on the work detail last week were Kenneth and Katie Keim from Drakesville, Iowa.  They moved to Iowa four years ago after living all their life in Yoder.  Katie Keim's great-grandfather, Eli J. S. Miller, had been one of the early settlers, and he donated a portion of his land for the cemetery.  On June 20, 1908, he signed the deed giving the land to the Amish Church of Ford County.

The Keims checked the county records while in Dodge City and learned that tiny parcel of ground still belongs to the Amish Church of Ford County, though now extinct.

According to David Luthy's "The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed, 1840-1960," one of Enos Yoder's daughters remembered she was 11 when her parents moved to Ford County in 1913.  They stayed only one summer because grasshoppers and drought took almost all their crops.

"Grasshoppers, dust storms and blizzards they had it all.  That's why they wanted out," said Jeanie Bartel, from the Hillsboro area of central Kansas, who came to help with the refurbishing of the cemetery.  Her grandmother was born in the settlement and was a sister to Lovina and Danny.

"Grandmother survived as did the other siblings, but those two did not," Bartel said.

There are several grave markers for children at the cemetery, most with names and date of birth and death, except one that says, "unknown infant, God's child."

One family passed along the story of a funeral for a child near the end of the settlement.  People were gathered for the burial when a car from the Ford County Health Department pulled up.  They said the child had died of scarlet fever and everyone had to disperse at once because they were all quarantined.  Only two men remained to bury the child.

There is another grave in the cemetery off by itself.  The name on the stone is Clara Warley.  There is no record of her, but it had been passed along through generations that she was 16 and traveling by covered wagon when she died near the settlement.  Her family asked permission to bury her in the cemetery.  And she was given a space in a corner.

Although an outsider to all the others buried in the small plot of land, Clara wasn't forgotten on Wednesday.  She too would be getting a new marker along with Lovina and Danny and all the others buried here so long ago.
(Garden City Telegram ~ Tuesday ~ September 2, 2014 ~ Page A3)


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