Future, Present and Past

Members of our Finney County Museum staff, with a small but dedicated cadre of volunteers, are conducting the Seventh Annual Historic Walking Tours of Valley View Cemetery this weekend, and as in past years the tickets for each of the six tours sold out quickly.


For the powerful popularity of this once-per-year three-night event, we certainly want to credit the volunteer reenactors who are portraying several figures from Finney County’s past, as well as our generous tour sponsor, Price and Sons Funeral Home. However, we should also acknowledge the avid interest so many members of our community take in exploring local history. By the time we finish the final tour Saturday night, an estimated 1,600 people will have walked beneath the boughs of the cemetery’s expansive tree canopy with us since October of 2014, learning about lives of men and women who have built and populated Garden City, Holcomb and the surrounding area over the past 14 decades.


One of those persons, whose grave we have visited during some of the tours in years past, is Mitchal Runnels, who died 93 years ago in February of 1927, after his beloved 1924 Chevy was struck on the local railroad tracks at Sixth Street by an oncoming train. After the fatal collision, young Mitchal’s father lovingly constructed a concrete monument to honor his son’s life. Atop the three-foot four-inch pedestal, he placed the four-cylinder engine of Mitchal’s smashed and mangled Chevrolet.


Since that time, the slowly deteriorating memorial has been featured in numerous articles and books, as well as in local stories handed down from one generation to another. Among the best known is an account, with accompanying photograph, in author John Gary Brown’s morbidly fascinating book, "Soul in the Stone -- Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland."


YOUNG MAN’S STORY


The story about Mitchal that emerges from our research files at the Finney County Museum is that he was an industrious teenager, born in 1909, who worked multiple jobs to help support his family as well as to refurbish and improve the second-hand car he had purchased. Whether he had time or sufficient warning to jump from the vehicle when the train bore down upon him, no one knows.


What we do know is that Mitchal’s father had encountered troubles, including scrapes with the law, before the family arrived in Garden City, and that they moved elsewhere soon after the burial. No trace of their whereabouts has ever been found.


Today, Mitchal’s often-visited monument has deteriorated to the point that it’s in danger of collapsing, or being removed in the interest of public safety. Consequently, the Finney County Historical Society is working to preserve the distinctive grave marker. We hope to replace the cracked and crumbling concrete with a similar-size engraved granite stone that will support the engine, as well as to stabilize and add a clear and long-term protective coating to the rusting motor itself.


YOU CAN HELP


Our organization has been the recipient this year of several gifts and grants to support our operations, including museum exhibits, educational programs, research services and preservation of more than 21,000 artifacts in our care. For that generous response to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as any support that comes through Match Day at the Western Kansas Community Foundation in December, we’re very grateful. Be that as it may, now we’re separately accepting contributions from anyone who would specifically like to help in upholding Mitchal’s memory.


We have already received more than $800 in donations for the project, as well as an anonymous supporter’s commitment (worth about $1,000) to thoroughly preserve the engine in its present condition. With an overall cost between $3,000 and $4,000, we’re welcoming cash or checks made out to "FCHS" to help fund the endeavor, with the memo line of each check marked "Engine grave." Gifts may be mailed to P.O. Box 796 or taken to the Finney County Museum at 403 S. Fourth Street in Garden City.


We can’t say whether Mitchal might be watching these efforts, but if we’re successful, the story of his life will be etched for future generations into the granite beneath the engine that he labored over all those years ago. That, we believe, might truly constitute the "Soul in the Stone."


Steve Quakenbush is the executive director of the Finney County Historical Society. He can be contacted at HYPERLINK "mailto:squakenbush@finneycounty.org" or at squakenbush@finneycounty.org .