Formally, this featured artifact, a broken but intact gravestone, is not officially part of the Wayne County Historical Society of Ohio’s collection. Basically, the Society has been temporarily housing it for 34 years until it can be returned to its proper place in Steele Cemetery, also known as the old Sommer-Speicher Cemetery. Unfortunately, it may never be returned, as this private-property family cemetery no longer exists as a cemetery and it’s original location in the cemetery lot is unknown.
When Michael and Dori Doerfler brought it to the Society and left it there in the fall of 1982 it was not really theirs to give, donate, or leave to the Society. They did not legally own it or acquire it. Technically, one could say they stole it: a theft by finding. Which occurs when someone chances upon an object which seems abandoned and takes possession of the object, but fails to take steps to establish whether the object is abandoned, and not merely lost, or unattended.
In a note left with the artifact the Doerfler’s revealed they “…noticed this grave marker on the corner of Eby and Back Orrville roads among some others…we were concerned that it had been dug up by a local farmer and tossed aside. Not only would we be interested in its origin and original location, but of its value as well as to whom it belongs….” as it was inscribed in a language they could not read.
As the old gravestone sat in the Society’s secretary’s office many people tried to determine what was written on it to no avail. That is, until Cliff Bushnell stopped-by one day and recognized the carving as Fraktur script in the German language.
He translated the inscription as:
Here lie the remains of Elizebeth
Rudolph + Susanna Hochstrasser
Died 31 Nov or Oct
1844 Age 8 years
5 months + 15 days
Though Bushnell translated the month of death as either October or November, this is questionable: November never has 31 days and October would have been shortened to Okt or Oct and none of the letters look remotely like a “c”, “k”, or “t”. Perhaps it was some form of shorthand for a month that has been lost over time.
According to Wayne County Recorder deed records Rudolph Hochstrasser bought 80 acres of land in Green Township in 1839. Elizebeth would have been around 3 years of age when they moved onto the Wayne County farm. The 1840 Federal Census shows Rudolph Hochstrasser had been born in Switzerland and had a family consisting of a wife and four children: 1 boy under 5 years old, 1 girl under 5 years old, 1 girl between 5 to 10 years of age, and 1 girl between 15 to 20 years of age. From the 1850 Census, we can deduce that the Hochstrasser’s lost at least two children between 1840 and 1850: a son, and 8 year old Elizebeth, as the Census shows Rudolph’s family was reduced to his wife Susanna, a daughter Hannah age 27, and a daughter Mary Ann age 17. Rudolph Hochstrasser listed his occupation as a weaver. The house where the Hochstrasser family lived still stands on the SW corner across from where Rohrer Rd. intersects with Back Orrville Rd., just a short way east down Back Orrville Rd. from Steele Cemetery.
It is likely both of the Hochstrasser children were buried in Steele Cemetery though only Elizebeth’s gravestone survives to speak of her existence. In fact, because the Doerfler’s took her stone in 1982 this marker is one of only two broken but intact surviving gravestones from Steele Cemetery. All the rest were knocked down, destroyed, or dumped in an unknown location by the private-property owners.
Steele Cemetery was a private family cemetery that had not been used as a cemetery, for at least 120 years, but its existence was well documented: it appears on the maps of Wayne County in 1856, 1873, and 1897. However, by the late 1970s, it had become so long neglected as to entirely lose its identity as a cemetery, and was no longer recognized and respected by the public as a cemetery. The wrought iron fence that once reportedly enclosed the cemetery was gone and the lot had become unkempt and overgrown hiding the gravestones from view. Most people driving past never knew a cemetery even existed on the NW corner of Eby and Back Orrville roads. The real estate on which the cemetery sat was sold in 1977. While the new property owner may have had a moral obligation to take care of the old private family cemetery there are no laws that require them to do so. According to the old deed records the cemetery was once approximately a half-acre in size or 165ft X 132ft. Google satellite maps show the majority of the land that was once a cemetery has been reclaimed for farmland. All the monuments may be gone, but all the graves are still there, the remains were never exhumed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Steele family descendants tried to bring the cemetery back from its almost total devastation but had little recourse as relatives of the deceased have no legal leverage over family plots on land they don’t own. A local Ruritan Club erected the Steele Cemetery sign that is seen today to mark the site of the former cemetery.
Somewhere in the southeast corner of this farmland at the intersection of Eby and Back Orrville roads lay the remains of little Elizebeth Hochstrasser who died in 1844 at 8 years old, 5 months, and 15 days. We’ll never know the color of her hair. If it was curly, wavy, or straight. Were her eyes blue, brown, or hazel? Was she a vivacious, rambunctious, outgoing girl or a quiet, reserved, shy girl? Would she pound the ground when she ran or did her feet seem to float across the landscape? Did she die from an accident or a disease? Was her suffering before death short or lengthy? We’ll never have the answer to any of these questions.
The only record of her short existence is her gravestone which continues to stay in storage at the Wayne County Historical Society, caught in a sort of limbo, as it cannot be repaired and re-erected on private property and it cannot be tossed aside, for little Elizebeth Hochstrasser deserves better from her community.