One of the first immigrants to live in the farmland northwest of Chicago, George Stahl Schnabele died on June 30, 1884, and was lowered into a grave so that he could rest in peace.
Nearly 130 years later, Hawthorn Woods bird-watchers Joel Schauer, 53, and his son, Jake, 22, happen upon Schnabele's worn, white tombstone lying in the woods not far from a busy road in Wheeling and wonder if there is a story behind their find. There is.
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"He's the third person who has found it," Judy Hughes, president of the Northbrook Historical Society, says of Schauer's discovery. In the late 1980s, another suburban man found Schnabele's tombstone and brought a photograph and his hand-drawn map to the historical society. Another person stumbled upon Schnabele's tombstone in the 1990s.
Since the spot in the forest preserve is less than 2 miles from the old North Northfield Cemetery, people often assume the tombstone was stolen as a prank and then dumped in the forest preserve when the novelty wore off. Decades of well-meaning discoverers such as Schauer merely want the stone returned to Schnabele's final resting place.
"There's a good likelihood the guy was buried there before the forest preserve bought it," Hughes says of the spot in the woods hiding Schnabele's tombstone. "A lot of people were buried on their own land."
Or, in Schnabele's case, buried on the farm belonging to his father-in-law, George Wessling, a prominent settler whose family has lived in the Northbrook area for generations. Wessling Drive, which runs through the subdivision where the Wessling farm once stood, is named in honor of Edgar Wessling, who served as village clerk in Northbrook for 44 years.
"We have quite a few family members who are just like this and have been buried on family plots on property owned by the family, and they tend to be lost to history as things change and move on," says Ron Schinleber, 65, the retired Northbrook deputy fire chief whose great-grandmother Viola Wessling was Schnabele's niece. "It's more than a cemetery marker. It's a person. It's a family."
The Schnabele family apparently moved to Illinois from their home in the Alsace-Lorraine territory on the border between France and Germany when George Schnabele, who was born on Dec. 13, 1837, was 3 years old, says Hughes, who has researched the family.
As did many of the settlers in the area now known as Northbrook and Wheeling, the Schnabele family spoke German. George S. Schnabele married Maria Elisabeth Wessling, who is listed as coming from Prussia, but might have been born here, Hughes says.
Many of the other early settlers fought as part of a German-speaking regiment during the Civil War, but there is no record of Schnabele being a soldier, Hughes says. In 1864, Schnabele and his wife became parents to a son, Franklin, who died nine months later. Daughter Ardelia, born in 1866, died at age 4. Both are buried alongside their grandparents in the North Northfield Cemetery, Hughes says. Other Schnabele children survived and moved to what is now Naperville, she adds.
At the time of his death at age 46, Schnabele and his family had moved into Chicago and he was working as a teamster, possibly hauling goods from his in-laws' farm, Hughes says. "He had to make a living for his family," she says, adding that times were tough.
A German church, started in 1837 by pastor Daniel Stanger, probably buried people in the woods near the farm. Last June, the Northbrook Historical Society and the village placed a simple stone marker on a grassy knoll in front of a local bank, marking the spot where dozens of early settlers were buried in the Aux Plaine Cemetery.
The cemetery's tombstones disappeared more than 80 years ago, but the bodies remain, Hughes says.
"They buried them in chronological order," Schinleber says. "If you died in February, you were buried next to a guy who died in January and one who died in March."
Schnabele, who records show died of heart disease and the complicating issue of dropsy, apparently was buried by himself on the farm.
"I'm sure he's not the only one buried in the forest preserves," Hughes says. "You'd be surprised the number of foundations and other things from the 1850s, '60s, '70s, '80s that you might find when you walk through the forest preserve."
Pointing to an even older tombstone in the historical society's collection, Hughes notes that the grave it once marked was covered long ago by a major road. At least, Schnabele's final resting place, while unknown to all but history buffs and a few hikers, remains in a beautiful forest, surrounded by trees and lush green flora that probably isn't that different from what it was when his body was placed in the ground.
"It's nice," says Schauer, the latest wanderer to find the stone and ponder the mortality of all humans. "One day, I'll be with him. Until then, I'll just pass by."
Woods: Historical society placed simple stone marker near cemetery of early settlers