By Rachel Mast | Special to The Budget | Published May 27, 2015
Uncovering 19th century documents wasn’t what Faith Christian Fellowship had in mind when they decided to rebuild their church house foundation last month. But that’s exactly what happened.
Workers from the church in Trail were pulling sandstones from the foundation when they came across one that was engraved 1844 and 1896. “We were very careful how we lifted it,” said David Mast, pastor of the church. “As we were lifting it, we noticed this plate underneath that set up into the stone neatly.”
The plate ended up being the top of a tightly-sealed copper box wedged into a cavity cut in the stone. Using a soldering torch, they opened the box and found inside German books and documents, including a Bible, songbook, scripture reference book, newspapers and about 25 pages of handwritten notes. The box also contained several Swiss coins.
“It was a marvel to us how well everything was preserved for the length of time,” Mast said. One coin dated 1836 and the Bible dated 1895. The Swiss coins were likely ones immigrants brought from their native land, said local historian Leroy Beachy.
According to Beachy, the church house in Trail is one of three in the area built by Swiss Reformed immigrants. The Reformed people had come from the Emmental Valley in Switzerland, arriving in America in the 1830s to find cheap land and new opportunities. Today the group calls itself United Church of Christ. Also engraved in the sandstone at the church were the words “German Reformed Walnut Creek Congregation” in German.
All the items in the copper box were written or printed in German. “That’s because the people were German,” Beachy said. “They couldn’t speak English.”
As immigrant children attended school in the community, the language eventually changed to English. That the books and documents were still in German shows that transition hadn’t yet happened. Sermons at the church were likely in German well into the 1900s.
Beachy, who translated the handwritten letters, said they “talked not just about the Reformed, but also about the pioneers, including Amish and Mennonite.” One of the letters mentioned Jonas Stutzman, the first Amish settler in Holmes County, and that he walked five miles every weekend from the house he was building in Walnut Creek to his aunt’s house in Sugarcreek. Up until now, legend had said he walked there every evening and returned to his house the next morning.
Although Mast was surprised when they discovered the box, he said Mast Construction who lifted the church was not. “It was a traditional thing at the time.”
Still today documents and coins are sometimes hidden in the foundations of important buildings and even private homes. “My curiosity wonders whether it was a church dedication,” Mast shared. “As they were ready to lay the final sandstone, I’m assuming they held a dedication service and put these things in the box as a part of that.”
It’s yet to be fully decided what will be done with the items, Mast said. “We talked about somehow displaying them, whether at church itself or elsewhere.”
Beachy hopes they will end up in the German Culture Museum.
The engraved stone will get etched back into the church house foundation.