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Boy Scout marks graves at Middle River Cemetery

Boy Scout marks graves at Middle River Cemetery

October 17th, 2017 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

After Michael Barak, second from left, hit a stone with his soil probe, Cliff Martin, Austin Toebben and Ryan Toebben jumped in to help extract a buried grave marker. Barak has discovered over 200 unlabeled graves at Middle River Cemetery in Tebbetts.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /News Tribune.

TEBBETTS, Mo. — Michael Banak pointed at a small, gray headstone with his soil probe while wind whipped through Middle River Cemetery.

"This one means a lot to us," he told a visitor.

The name John E. is engraved on the stone, along with his age: 2 months.

"See how pristine this is?" Banak said. "It was lying face-down in the dirt. We can't find any record of John. He's been completely forgotten."

Banak and members of the Middle River Cemetery Association want to make sure none of the graves there are forgotten — not even the unmarked ones. That's why the association hired him to use ground-penetrating radar to search for gravesites.

That's also why association President Faye Zumwalt was delighted when Boy Scout Austin Toebben proposed marking those new gravesites as his Eagle Scout project.

Toebben, his family and members of his troop spent Sunday morning laying engraved bricks at each of the 236 sites Banak has found. Each brick was marked with the row and column of the site, along with the word "unknown."

"(The idea) was kind of handed to me by one of the leaders in my troop," Toebben said. "I live in Holts Summit, so (Middle River Cemetery) is outside my news area, so to speak. But when I heard about it and what (the association) was doing, I thought it was a great idea."

The Helias High School sophomore enjoys helping others because it encourages people to pay it forward.

Toebben worked with Zumwalt to decide the best way to mark the sites. His father, Ryan Toebben, works for Midwest Block & Brick, which agreed to donate the laser-printed bricks.

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"It's a solid brick, made of clay, baked and sealed," Ryan Toebben said. "It could last 100 years."

He and his family put each brick in place using Banak's map Saturday. Then the crew worked for several chilly hours Sunday to set the bricks in the ground.

Toebben said he has to submit paperwork regarding the project for review before he receives the Eagle Scout rank. He's been scouting for six years.

"So many people start Scouts, but only a choice few
finish," he said. "I wanted that feeling that I made it."

Zumwalt beamed while looking out across the cemetery after the project wrapped up. "This is beautiful to me," she said. "This just looks so good to me."

The grave-finding project began about four years ago, after Zumwalt realized the association had records that didn't match up with any known gravesites.

"At one time, I was naive and thought we could identify all the graves," she said.

However, as Banak found more and more graves, she realized that likely would be impossible. Most of the cemetery's records were destroyed in a long-ago fire at Middle River Church.

"I knew we had to do something to honor the people that are here," she said.

As Banak discovers graves, both through the use of ground-penetrating radar and simple tools like the soil probe, which clinks when it strikes a stone underground, he records their GPS coordinates and marks them on Google Earth. The map will be sent to the Callaway County Historical Society, the county recorder's office and other record keepers, to be updated at five-year intervals.

"This way, we can be assured we won't be digging up graves that are already here," said Lola Wekenborg, the society's secretary/treasurer.

Banak prodded the earth next to one of the newly planted bricks while Toebben and the society members gathered for a photo.


Soon, he had a shovel in hand. With the help of Toebben's father and grandfather, he was digging up fragments of a flat stone.

"Looks like you have a new hobby," Toebben's mother Tanya joked.

Some pieces seemed to bear markings under their thick clay coating — a curved line, a four-pointed star — though no writing was visible.

"But all the pieces are buried vertically, which usually indicates it was put there by a person," Banak said.

He said poor families often marked graves with a large stone or other inexpensive marker, which were sometimes replaced or supplemented with something fancier if the family's fortunes changed. These chilled, sunken stones might be such a marker.

Although Middle River Cemetery is mapped and marked, it still holds plenty of mysteries to unearth.

Donations to the association can be mailed to Wekenborg at 11600 Wekenborg Lane in Tebbetts, MO 65080. Banak can be reached via email at

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