From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
Walking down the long sidewalk that divides the Mount Zion Cemetery is like walking through downtown Leavenworth at the turn of the century. Names familiar to the dry goods business, banking merchandising and the medical community are proudly displayed on the headstones.
These were the leaders of Leavenworth's golden age and represent a large Jewish community that once thrived and supported the city. It was about this time that Otto Stein became the caretaker of the cemetery, according to his grandson, George Stein Jr. The elder Stein was born in Leavenworth in 1878 after his parents. Antonio and Johanna Kruger Stein, had moved the family from Atchison. They were looking for work and a place to live.
"The story goes that granddad was sent to the Sisters of Charity," Stein Jr. recalled as he stood at the cemetery's front gate. "They told him about the caretaker's job being open at the Jewish cemetery. A house went with the job and the 40 acres of land surrounding the property were available for sharecropping."
Although the Stein family followed the Catholic faith, the elder Stein poured his heart and soul into the care of the cemetery. He was to be its caretaker for the next 48 years.
"Those were the horse and buggy days. They say that before Fort Leavenworth got started, there was a French trapping colony right here in this area. And maybe some of them were buried at this site because it was on the highest elevation."
A mining company came along at the mid-century mark and began to excavate the land, "but about all they found were rocks and more rocks. So that didn't last too long."
The Society of the Sons of Truth was first organized June 10, 1858 with James Wollman, Simon Abeles and Joseph Ringolsky as trustees. Through the years, it became known as Mount Zion Cemetery. The records have been destroyed twice, but those that remain tell of burials long before the ground was designated a cemetery. Information taken from headstones by Erwin Baker and Charles Pierce indicate a Jacobs infant was born in 1834 and died July 17, 1835. An ancestor of the Etterson family that operated a dry goods store in Leavenworth for many years was Henry Etterson. The records in a ledger kept at the Leavenworth National Bank said Etterson was born in 1751 and died Oct. 17, 1809. He was buried in family plot No. 68.
The old-time ledger holds a number of interesting points. For instance, the causes of death from 1866 to 1896 included being crushed by cars, kidney troubles, summer complaints (two of those), being drowned in the Missouri River, killed by a mule, killed by a railroad car, murdered (that was in 1870), thrown from a buggy, stomach trouble, chronic insanity (the person was 36 when he died), evidently killed, burned to death and softening of the brain.
By the time the elder Stein began to care for the cemetery, it was beginning to fill quickly. In 1911 a wall was erected along the front of the cemetery. But the construction of the Salinger mausoleum changed the face of the cemetery and took the most planning. It was built in 1921 upon the death of Augustus L. Salinger.
"They hauled the rock up here with a team of horses from Haymarket Square. And they had a German stonemason come in here to put it all together. Now, all this big mausoleum was built for just one man, but after a few years, his parents were put in the mausoleum, too. The sad thing is that Augustus was the last one in the family line and he never married."
Stein Jr. says his grandfather used the 40 acres by the cemetery for a truck garden, "and back in those days, that was a good living. He would have a big long table full of produce and people knew it was good and would come for miles around."
He planted two mulberry trees in the front portion of the cemetery that remain and flourish today. The elder Stein left a record of public service. He was born in 1878, a son of Antonio and Johanna Kruger Stein. At the age of 21, he was elected clerk of the Kickapoo Township, and later held the office of road overseer for the township. In 1905, he was made a special deputy sheriff for Kickapoo and also was named the game warden. He retired as cemetery caretaker in 1948.
However, his son and grandson had already begun caring for the grounds and Stein Sr. replaced his father in the late '40s.
"I used to help him with the push mowers and we dug the graves with a shovel. It was some hard work in those days. The Jewish people held to many of their traditions and one of them was that graves must be opened and closed on the same day. Never were they to stand open overnight."
His grandfather told him the early Jewish burials were not in vaults. The coffin would be put right into the ground without any covering over it.
Stein Jr. says neither his grandfather nor father received a salary. Their only compensation was the home in which they were allowed to live and the 40 acres they could plant. After his father's home was destroyed by a tornado in 1961, the cemetery board decided not to rebuild.
"I took over the job from Dad in 1970. By that time we had nicer lawn mowers and eventually got a riding one. I walk down this sidewalk and see so many names that were so important to this town. Also there was this lady, Dorothy Toffler. She did so much for the cemetery and she was one of the first ones I buried. She came out here a lot, put flowers on the graves. She taught a lot of her people buried out here. There just aren't any more like her left, I'm afraid."
Nor will there be any Steins to take over once Stein Jr. retires. He says his boys aren't any too interested in cemetery care, but as long as he is able, he will be the caretaker and make sure the graves are tended and the property not vandalized.
MOUNT ZION CEMETERY -- Many of the headstones in Mount Zion Cemetery are engraved in Hebrew, representing those who followed the Jewish faith. The cemetery was chartered in 1858, but burial records indicate some took place in the 1820s. (Times Photo by J. J. Zeman)
TRADITION CONTINUES -- George Stein Jr. is continuing a tradition of care at Mount Zion Cemetery. His grandfather, Otto Stein, took over the job in 1900 and worked there until 1948. His father George Stein Sr., had the job until Stein Jr. took over in 1970. (Times Photo)