Cemetery tour offers up local history lesson





There is a tract of land at the intersection of Third and Mary streets, across from the water tower, that has inexplicably remained empty.

The reason?

People are still buried there.

As Johnetta Hebrlee, education and retail coordinator of the Finney County Historical Society, tells the tale, many years ago a gentleman from Garden City asked workers to remove the bodies from the tract of land and bury them on a farm. The gentleman didn't want a cemetery in his yard. A plot was donated to the city, and several men were paid to move all the bodies to what is now known as Valley View Cemetery. However, the men put dirt in the boxes instead of the bodies, then brought the boxes of dirt to the cemetery and buried them. They told the people who paid them that they had moved the bodies to the cemetery, even though they had not.

According to the former sexton of Valley View Cemetery, James Hahn, about 24 bodies are still buried on that deceived farmer's plot of land. It's hallowed ground, and that's why the plot remains empty to this day, and no one will build there.

Hebrlee told the story as she led a group of students from Bernadine Sitts Intermediate Center on a walking tour Wednesday at Valley View Cemetery, where she unveiled pleasant, but also a few sorrowful, tales.

One of Hebrlee's first stops — pointing out the different granite, marble and soapstone tombstones along the way — was the Weeks' plot, which is the oldest part of the cemetery, dating back to the late 1800s. Hebrlee then led the enthusiastic students to Garden City's well-known founders, Charles Jesse "Buffalo Jones." Behind his historical stone was John Stevens — whom Stevens Park is named after — and James and William Fulton. In 1879, Jones, along with Stevens and the Fulton brothers, founded Garden City. Each man homesteaded more than 160 acres in southwest Kansas.

As Hebrlee guided the students on a trail of historical tales, one monument caught the eyes of these young sponges who as yet had little to no knowledge of the city's past.

"Back in the early 1900s, real mean gangsters were all the talk during this time," Hebrlee said in a captivating tone to the students as they surrounded the stone. "No 'wannabes.' People often laughed and scoffed at them, but the Fleagle Gang made sure that no one took them for a joke."

The Fleagle Gang, comprised of Jake and Ralph Fleagle, and George Abshier and Howard Royston, robbed the First National Bank in Lamar, Colo., in 1928. They are responsible for bank robberies in San Fernando Valley in California, and successfully robbed the McPherson Bank in 1922, the Ottawa Bank in 1923, the Marysville Bank in 1926, Kinsley and Larned banks in 1927, and a bank in Haynes, Ore., in 1922.

During the Fleagles' spree, they had what was considered a luxury home. Meanwhile, the city was going through a time of starvation and poverty. Their grand home had been built by John LaGesse, the grandfather of Linda Motley, a teacher at Bernadine Sitts who was chaperoning the class during the tour. Motley said her grandfather also built the first jail in Garden City, as well as the columns at Lee Richardson Zoo.

Hidden under the shade of a tree was the tombstone of a 16-year-old boy who tugged at the heartstrings of the fifth- and sixth-graders.

"He was gone in a flash," Hebrlee said. "It was his baby, his prized possession. Sorry girls — but men love their cars and motorcycles."

They all got a laugh out of that, but the mood changed as Hebrlee retold the story of Mitchel Runnels.

Hebrlee said he would always go down to Lee Kemper's shop, who then owned the Automobile Electric Garage at the time. On a cold, wintry day, Feb. 16, 1927, Runnels had come to the shop to work on his car. When the shop closed for the evening, he left for home, but never made it.

Runnels' vehicle was instead struck by an eastbound Santa Fe Chief on the railroad track. Cars were not fuel-injected back then, Hebrlee said, so his car died when it went over the hill of the train track. Runnels' 1924 four-cylinder Chevrolet was shattered into pieces upon impact. He died 25 minutes later after being taken to the hospital.

The only thing remaining from the car was the motor block of his beloved Chevrolet. The "Motor Monument" now sits on top of a crude concrete slab, placed there by his father at the time in Zone A, Lot 188, Space 7.

The motor monument was painted silver by his father, but over the years, it has lost its glowing luster. Hebrlee said there are plans to restore the monument to its former glory. Runnels' family left Garden City shortly after the accident, but to this day, someone still puts flowers by the motor monument.

Hebrlee told story after story, including one that shined light on the Finnup Family, who established the Finnup Foundation Trust in 1977 and are the namesake of Finnup Park, home of Lee Richardson Zoo, the Big Pool and the Finney County Historical Museum. The foundation was continued by siblings Frederick and Isabel Finnup, who carried on the legacy of generosity, decision-making business savvy and community work that was modeled by their father, George Finnup, and their grandfather, Frederick Finnup.

No matter the triumphant tales that led the city to its present glory, one of Finney County's darkest times will perhaps never be forgotten.

"They're gone." is what Hebrlee said Marie Dewey told her husband, Alvin, just after the horrific deaths of their close friends, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children, Nancy and Kenyon.

Hebrlee said Alvin Dewey then told his wife, "Oh, they will be back. They probably just stepped out for a while."

Again, Marie said, "No, they're gone." Marie then began telling her husband, who was away in Topeka, about how their friends had died.

"Alvin dedicated his life to this case," Hebrlee said. "It was life-changing for him and to the people of this community. People were locking down their doors and windows and were so scared for a long time."

The infamous murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, who were killed by two men, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, was immortalized by writer Truman Capote in the novel, "In Cold Blood." Hickock and Smith had heard while in jail that the Clutter family had money stashed in a safe in the house. After the two men were released from prison, they devised a plan to steal that money.

After no safe was found in the home, the men killed Herb and Bonnie Clutter, then their children.

Hickock and Smith were captured in Nevada and brought to Garden City, where they stood trial in Finney County District Court for the murders, and received the death penalty.

Hebrlee said all that was ultimately found in the home was $30.

As the tour wound down, the students, still soaking up history previously unknown to them, sat at the steps of the Veteran Monument where Memorial Day services are held every year to honor the troops who lost their lives defending our country.

"This is for us to appreciate what was done for them. and that it's not lost," Hebrlee said. "Its meaning behind these names and the importance will forever grow."

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