Archive for Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Shouts and murmurs: Tonganoxie lore, then and now

September 1, 2004

This week we complete our two-part series on Nick Marel, a stonemason who lived in the Tonganoxie area from about 1941 until his death in 1968.

We at The Mirror thank everyone who was interviewed for the story, as well the dozens of readers who contacted us after last week's segment ran.

What was surprising was that about half of those who called to comment about Nick's story were not originally from this area. They had no personal recollection of Nick -- which means they had no way of knowing what a curious person he was. But, in driving through town, they'd wondered who was responsible for the native stone houses.

And if they'd asked anyone who'd lived here in the 1960s about the stone houses, it's likely they would have heard a word or two about the eccentric man who spent his final years building a castle, rock by rock. And to add a little more fun to the story, locals commonly refer to the stone-lined drainage ditch in the area of Nick's house at Fifth and Church streets as a "moat."

Those who worked with Nick said he had a natural born talent for quarrying rocks and turning them into houses, barns, fireplaces or anything else he set out to build.

Francis Wiley, for whose parents Nick built two barns, a machine shed and a house near Reno, recalled that Nick would know, even when quarrying rocks from a hillside, where he would place each rock. Of course, it still took some chiseling to make the stones right. And it took strength to lift them into place. Wiley, who as a teenager helped Nick with the work, estimated that Nick "could have bench pressed 600 or 700 pounds."

In completing this series, it is my hope that we haven't written this story into the ground. But rather that we've taken a long look back at a topic that holds interest to local readers.

Even as we complete this story, there remains the fact that although we may now know more about Nick Marel than we ever knew before, he remains in many respects, an enigma.

Or, as his former neighbor and longtime friend, Gladys Steffen, said Monday, "Nobody really knew him, did they."

vvv

When it comes to replenishing water tables and nourishing crops, we've been lucky this summer.

Farmers are saying we're looking at the first good corn crop in three years.

A relative who annually flies in from California in late August said she was surprised to see from the plane that Kansas was green, and all the ponds were full.

At our house we dug a pond three years ago -- bad timing as far as rainfall was concerned. Slowly this summer we've watched the water level creep up. And finally after Friday night's deluge, the pond rose two feet.

Thrilled by simple pleasures, we're taking delight in the fact that now if we dangle our legs over the side of the dock, and stretch as far as we can, water is within reach.

My father, who has lived in northeastern Kansas all his life, said this is only the second August he can remember when the grass didn't turn brown. The first year he recalled that happening, he said, was 1993.

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