Abandoned Catholic cemetery brought back to life

Members of the American Legion give a 21 gun salute for Civil War veterans buried at Old Kessler Cemetery, during the cemetery’s rededication on All Souls Day. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

EASTON — Walk with me down a path mown at the edge of a recently harvested soybean field just north of town, around several wide curves of the forested land beyond the field, to an opening in the trees.  Stop a moment. Hear the soft gurgle of flowing water, and the trills of birds in the silence? Just a few more steps. There!

Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery, better known in the area as Old Kessler’s Cemetery, forgotten for decades and now partly restored, lies ahead. About 60 people gather around a fire as the early November temperature is chilly. Several men in the uniform of the Stewartsville American Legion Post stand at ease in the trees. The United States flag waves gently in the breeze.

Father Eric Schneider of St. Joseph’s parish in Easton, strolls through the crowd, greeting people and welcoming them to the rededication of the cemetery, which was first dedicated in 1847.

After donning his stole, Fr. Schneider leads the prayer service, including the Litany of the Saints, to rededicate the 172-year-old burial ground and bless those whose final resting place lies within. It is All Souls Day.

Following the prayer service, the American Legion members step forward, guns at the ready. The melancholy notes of Taps sound, dying away at the end. Their commander calls out “Ready, Fire!” and the men raise their rifles toward the sky, firing a total of 21 times. The military salute for the seven known Civil War veterans buried in Old Kessler’s Cemetery echo for a moment, recalling the echoes of gunfire heard by those seven soldiers during the American Civil War. 

Tim Wiedmaier, credited with rediscovering the little cemetery in 2008, reads aloud brief biographies of the veterans. While researching his family history, he had come across the names, the Church of the Holy Savior, Kessler’s Settlement and Kessler’s Cemetery. A student of history and a teacher, Wiedmaier was intrigued and began searching for the church, the cemetery and the Kessler family in the region near the Platte River at Easton.

It took several ventures into the farming communities and woodland areas north of Easton before he stumbled on the overgrown burial ground containing a marker declaring it to be St. Joseph’s Cemetery, dedicated in 1847. A few headstones and monuments rose above the brush, weeds and vines that covered the area. In the near distance he heard rushing water.

Wiedmaier picked his way into the cemetery, noting the names on the grave markers he could see and read, some in German, some in English. When he saw several headstones bearing the name Kessler, he figured he was in the right spot. Exploring a bit further, he found head and foot markers engraved with names including Wiedmaier, Siela and Fisher. Several of his ancestors and those of friends and acquaintances were named on the legible stones.

He reached out to several churches — St. Joseph’s, Easton, Seven Dolors, Hirlingen and Holy Trinity, Weston; the archives of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, family members and friends. Wiedmaier obtained baptismal, matrimonial, birth, death and burial records. Some of the records were contradictory or confusing as the spelling of names depended on the education and penmanship skills of the recorder.

He got friends Michael Fisher and Mary Bray interested in the cemetery, and they brought volunteers to the site to help Wiedmaier begin cleaning up the abandoned cemetery. Armed with a metal stave, Wiedmaier paced the cemetery acreage back and forth, using the stave to stab the ground and listening for the clunk of marble, granite or stone under the dirt. Some headstones and footstones were wholly or partly visible, lightly covered with soil, others were buried deeper.

What Wiedmaier discovered, learned or made an educated guess at gives us a slice of history. Recently, he compiled all he has learned into a book, ‘Old Kessler Cemetery Easton, Missouri’, subtitled ‘Church of the Holy Savior, Jesus Christ, and the Kessler Settlement, German Congregation, with updates including new discoveries and photographs’. The historical information, fascinating tidbits and family stories bring 1847 – 1923 in Buchanan County to life.

Did you know that the burial plots of many Catholic cemeteries founded in the 18th and 19th centuries contain both headstones and foot stones? The space between the head and footstones vary from about two feet to more than six feet. The plots are laid out facing east, the sunrise, the direction from where Christ is expected to judge the living and the dead at the end of time. Wiedmaier surmised that when the dead rise again, it will be simple for them to stand up and face Christ feet first.

The updated book begins with a photograph of a handwritten “indenture,” dated Sept. 22, 1847, detailing the transaction between Joseph Kesler (Kessler), his wife Maria Louisa Kesler, and Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis in which, for the consideration of $1, paid by Archbishop Kenrick, the Keslers “granted, sold, assigned and made over to the archbishop a five acre tract — running parallel to the home of Joseph Kesler and his wife Maria Louisa and beginning 100 feet from their home, “to be used for the site of a Roman Catholic Church and for purposes connected with Roman Catholic worship.”

Archbishop Kenrick visited the settlement that same year, “celebrating Mass and presiding over confirmations under a large tree with a handsomely decorated altar,” according to the 1992 Diocesan history, ‘This Far By Faith’. A log cabin church, named Holy Savior Catholic Church was built later in 1847 and a cemetery established in Beck Hollow nearby.

The first settler to the area, Sebastian Kessler, Sr., settled in Marion Township, Buchanan County in 1838. He and Scholastica, the daughter of Alois and Agnes Kotz, were married in Hurlingen, Germany. According to ‘This Far by Faith’, the Kesslers settled first in Ohio and in 1839, traveled to St. Louis and then upriver on a riverboat to Liberty. Purchasing oxen and wagons, they continued north to Marion Township and settled there on a government land grant. They named the town New Hurlingen.

Sebastian Sr. died in 1845 and was buried in the Bowen Cemetery, Easton. Scholastica survived him by 24 years and was buried in Kessler Cemetery.

The first baptism at Holy Savior Catholic Church took place on Dec. 19, 1847. William Henry Kesler, son of Fidelis Kesler and Anna Maria Zug Kesler, was born Dec. 11, 1847. His sponsors were Leopold Siela and Magdalena Kesler. There were 15 other baptisms celebrated between 1848 and 1852. It is supposed that the log cabin church burned down sometime during the later 1860s. A 1889 letter from Bernice Zug to Kevin Fisher recalled that many people from the region rode horseback to attend Mass at Holy Savior Church in Kessler’s Settlement, when Jesuit Father Francis Rutkowski came monthly from Weston to celebrate Mass. She added that “They carried guns to fight off bushwhackers in the Civil War days.” Although the actual date of the church fire is unknown, St. Joseph’s Church in Easton was built in 1870, replacing it.

From the time of the first burial in Kessler’s Cemetery — Joseph Kessler in 1849 — 74 interments took place. The final burial was that of Joseph Gerstner in 1923. Seven markers honor Civil War soldiers — Private John Fardel, Wunibold Kessler, Private Daniel Kessler, Corporal Michael Scanlon, 3rd Sergeant Jacob Waller, Private Anthony Siela and Private Jacob Wiedmaier.

It is possible that Wunibold Kessler, who went by several names and of unknown rank, was wounded in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Aug. 10, 1861, because he died just four months later. Wiedmaier has not yet located definite military records. The conjecture is that he was a veteran as his tombstone translated from the German states that ‘Here is a fresh young blood resting. Died a casualty for the Union. He was five days shy of 26 years old’.

Private John Fardel served in Company K 18th Missouri Infantry 1862 -65. He and his wife Anna had emigrated from Germany to Buchanan County. He died in Buchanan, Mo. in 1869.

Private Jacob Wiedmaier, a veteran of the Battle of Shiloh, contracted typhoid fever and died shortly after the battle of Corinth, Miss., in 1862.

Corporal Scanlon served in the 87th Regiment, Missouri Militia, under Colonel R. C. Bradshaw. Born in Roscommon, Ireland in 1827, Scanlon emigrated to New York in 1850. He married Mary Carroll in 1857, and the couple settled in Easton. They had five children. Michael died of bronchial pneumonia in 1915 in St. Joseph. He was 87. in Mary died in 1901 in Easton, at the age of 74. Michael, Mary and three of their sons, James, Barney and Thomas are buried in Kessler’s Cemetery (St. Joseph Cemetery)

Private Daniel Kessler, the son of Joseph and Maria Louisa Kessler, served in the 12th Missouri Cavalry. He was captured in Campbellsville, Tenn., and was a prisoner of war Nov. 24 – Dec. 23, 1864 when he escaped, reporting to Union Company K on Jan. 7, 1865. He was discharged as a prisoner of war in Louisville, KY in 1866, returned to the Easton area and married about 1871. He died in 1877.

Private Anthony Siela served in Company H, 5th Missouri Cavalry, a regiment in which many men from Buchanan County served, from March 1862 through June 1863.

The son of Leopold and Genovova (Kurtz) Siela was born in Hirrlingen, Germany in 1842. The Siela family emigrated to America on a ship named Iowa. They landed in New York in 1844, along with Joseph Wiedmaier and his family. They may have arrived in Buchanan County at the same time. Anthony (also known as Anton) married Emily Gerstner in 1869. They had eight children, Anthony died in 1901, aged 59. Emily died in 1907, aged 54.

Sergeant Jacob Waller served in the 87th Regiment, Missouri Militia, first ordered into service in 1862 at the site of the Platte Bridge Railroad Tragedy, the 1861 bushwhacker attack on the Hannibal and St. Joseph railroad which killed 17 – 20 and injured 100 on a bridge over the Platte River east of St. Joseph. Two years later his military records indicate that he was serving under Col. R.C. Bradshaw. In 1862, he married Mary Kessler, daughter of Joseph and Maria Louisa Kessler, the couple who donated the five acres of land to the Archdiocese of St. Louis for the Church of the Holy Savior and Kessler’s Cemetery.

Jacob Waller lived until 1914, dying of stomach cancer, and Mary Waller died in 1894. They are both buried in Kessler’s Cemetery.

Around 1925, the road connecting the cemetery with the public road was closed and abandoned. Some of the graves were dug up and the deceased moved to other cemeteries in Easton or Hirlingen. Sporadic attempts to clean it up occurred over the years, and in 2003, a local Boy Scout troop took on the cemetery as a service project. Following their labors, Kessler’s Cemetery was rededicated in 2003, according to diocesan records. However, it was never accorded the upkeep and care seen in cemeteries today. Between 1925 and recently, the cemetery became overgrown, many headstones deteriorated or broke in half, grew difficult to read or illegible and it was all but forgotten.

The restoration project, begun in the spring of 2019, included clearing the ground of vines and overgrowth using small controlled burns, tombstone cleaning and restoration, and installing a large cross constructed from a fallen tree trunk and branches in the far eastern corner overlooking the waterfall discovered this past April and its flowing stream. A road was mown from the public road on the other side of the soybean field to the cemetery entrance. 

Once the invasive vines and weeds were removed, about 30 different native varieties of trees were identified, including hackberry and hedge trees. Lilies, first planted in the 1800s, sprouted over much of the cemetery. Michael Fisher, who now serves as the cemetery’s volunteer custodian and conservator, began collecting hedge tree limbs and wire to complete the pioneer-style fence begun by the Boy Scouts 16 years ago to help protect the cemetery. He now has quite a sizable pile of limbs.

 Gentle cleaning was applied to intact headstones and the few granite headstones look brand new. To affect the restoration of most of the remaining headstones, David Snyder of Jacob’s Ladder Cemetery Restoration Specialists, Huntsville, Mo., was hired. He and his son worked to clean and remove dirt, bird dropping, algae and mold spores from the stones, spread an epoxy on the broken edges and, with the help of a machine called The Tombinator, raised and reset headstones and pedestals. Unfortunately, the epoxy failed to adhere to several of the headstones and they broke again. But the majority are clean, legible and standing proudly over the graves.

Fisher, Wiedmaier and other volunteers dream of the cemetery completely restored, cleaned and filled with lilies. An access road to the cemetery would facilitate its perpetual care. They would love to see descendants of those buried in Kessler’s Cemetery visit on warm summer evenings and enjoy a picnic while tidying their ancestor’s gravesite, just as families did in the 19th century.

In fact, there’s an old tradition, of tending to the grave sites of family members who served in wars and then having a picnic in the cemetery on Memorial Day. In some countries, notably Mexico, a similar custom is held on the Day of the Dead, and on All Souls Day in Germany and the U.S., for example. Old Kessler’s Cemetery was rededicated on All Souls Day and after the solemnities were concluded, tours or the cemetery were given and a hot dog, hamburger, chips, fruit and cookie lunch was announced.

Please check out the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/KesslerCemeteryEastonMissouri. To aid in the restoration effort checks can be made out to “St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery; note on memo line “for Kessler Cemetery.” Mail to St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery, c/o St. Joseph Catholic Church, P.O. Box 197, Easton, MO 64443. To purchase a copy of Tim Wiedmaier’s book, contact timwied@yahoo.com

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Tuesday
June 02, 2020
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph