The mystery of the wandering headstone is solved with help from readers

Posted on August 4th, 2009 – 2:29 PM
By James Shiffer

The tombstone transferThe mystery of the tombstone has endured for at least 30 years, the length of time that Patricia Brooks has lived on Ashland Avenue in St. Paul’s Summit University neighborhood.

The reddish granite slab is clearly marked “Gabriel Max Stern” with the dates of birth (1864) and death (1945) chiseled around a masonic symbol. Most recently, the stone was on top of a retaining wall that borders Brooks’ property, between a chainlink fence and a white picket fence. The stone migrated there from elsewhere in the yard next door to Brooks, and before that, lived in a garage of a house across the alley on Holly Street. The house next door recently changed hands. Brooks announced to her new neighbors: “This (stone) is leaving so don’t get used to it.” She thencontacted Whistleblower with the hope that Gabriel Max Stern’s tombstone could now go back home, wherever that is.

“I can’t stand it any more,” Brooks told me. “It’s like a wandering headstone. I just want it gone.”

We at Whistleblower began our investigation by contacting a longtime owner of the house next door to Brooks’, Betty Harri, who now lives elsewhere in St. Paul. She said she had nothing to do with putting it in her yard.

sternstone2.JPG“I had nothing to do with it,” Harri said. She sympathizes with Brooks’ concerns. “It gave me the creeps, too. I didn’t want to move it.”

A search of the Minnesota Historical Society visual archives turned up some clues to the man behind the monument. A photograph from 1904 shows a prosperous looking family in front of a Victorian home, with the caption, “Dr. Gabriel M. Stern and family home, 1265 Como Boulevard, St. Paul.” Not exactly in Summit University, but not too far away.

The Whistleblower team’s Jane Friedmann found out more. A search of historical society records showed a death certificate was issued for Dr. Gabriel M. Stern on Jan. 4, 1945 in Ramsey County. Then Friedmann talked to Gary Odegard of the Masons’ Grand Lodge of Minnesota. Odegard filled in a number of the details: born in Romania, Stern was a medical doctor who became a mason in 1903, at the age of 38. He took the masonic degrees and became a master mason. He belonged to the Triune Lodge #190.

Given the stone’s history, however, he’s unlikely to have been buried in a yard in Summit University. Friedmann checked with several local cemeteries, but he wasn’t a tenant of any of them. But with the help of readers, Whistleblower has solved the mystery and the stone has returned to the descendants of Dr. Stern.

One reader, Lynda Hurt, was the first to find the fifnal resting place for Dr. Stern: Acacia Park Cemetery in Mendota Heights. She also combed the Census reecords, and found six children in the Stern household in 1910.

Dale Bachmeier, Acacia Park’s general manager verfied that Gabriel Stern is indeed designated with a marker, but with a bronze one, the only kind allowed in the cemetery.

But Dr. Stern died during World War II, when there was a prohibition against using metal for many non-war purposes. So for two years he had a granite marker, until it was replaced in June 1947 with the bronze one.

Bachmeier provided the final clue. Dr. Stern’s daughter Marie Wallinga lived at that time on Holly Street, diagonally across the alley from Patricia Brooks.

We contacted Wallinga’s son Jack V. Wallinga, 85, one of Minneapolis Children’s Hospital’s founding physicians, who grew up at the house on Holly Street. He has no recollection of the stone, but surmises, “it must have been taken and leaned up in a corner and not moved when we left the house.”

According to Brooks, she and her neighbors helped the subsequent owner on Holly Street with lawn chores. Eventually the garage was ordered torn down and it was at that time that the stone took up residence in her neighbor’s yard.

Would Jack Wallinga like to have the stone back? “Yes, we would like to relieve them of that burden.”

Patricia Brooks’ response: “Marvelous.”

The transfer occurred on Thursday afternoon. Jack Wallinga’s son David helped with the heavy lifting.

The future of the tombstone remains a mystery, however. Jack Wallinga lives in a high-rise. David Wallinga contemplated the possibilities: “I might find a nice place for it in my yard.”

8 Responses to "The mystery of the wandering headstone is solved with help from readers"

lynda hurt says:

August 4th, 2009 at 7:14 pm

I just plugged Gabriel Max Stern’s name into the search
section of and discovered that he was
buried in Dakota County, Acacia Park Cemetery, Section:
CEDAR 6 9 11. How his stone got to St. Paul when the
cemetery is in Mendota Heights is anyones guess. He is
also listed on the 1930 census as a widow living at the
address on Como with his son, Phillip and daughter, Gladys.
He is listed on the 1910 census with wife, Sara and children
Jacob, Samuel, Marie, Phillip, Emanuel, and Gladys.
Hope his stone can be returned to where it should be.
Lynda Hurt 952-891-3691

Tony Rozycki says:

August 4th, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Kind of interesting since I used to live sort of near there. I know there are quite a few Sterns,
but I went to law school at the University of MN with a Leo Stern who is probably about 64 now.
Perhaps his grandfather?

Jake Miller says:

August 4th, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Not sure about all the hubub, but, considering
how hard it would be to paint that picket fence, it
looks pretty darn good.

Christopher Call says:

August 4th, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Many times orphaned stones were rejected for one reason
or another at the monument company. Sometimes they were
then resold as pavers or wall stones with the intention
of being installed upside down with the text not visible.

Jane Friedmann says:

August 5th, 2009 at 10:05 am

Star Tribune staff researcher John Wareham flushed out a few more tidbits about Gabriel Stern.

In 1893 the Knights of Honor hosted their first annual masquerade ball. Of the 400 attendees, about 150 were masked. Dr. Stern, vice dictator of the organization, was present.

In 1907 Dr. Stern, who was elected chairman of the Como-Warrendale Improvement Association, stated to the Tribune (the name of the Star Tribune back then) that “every effort would be made to block any attempt to create an express street car service between the Twin Cities.” Residents were concerned it would be too dangerous to people living nearby the proposed line.

Submitted by Jane Friedmann on the whistleblower team

Jane Friedmann says:

August 5th, 2009 at 11:07 am

We have the groundskeeper at Acacia checking to see whether or not Dr. Stern’s grave marker is physically present. Stay tuned.

Jane Friedmann says:

August 5th, 2009 at 11:45 am

Well, we have one more clue. We still don’t know how the marker ended up where it did, but we know why it isn’t at the gravesite.

Dale Bachmeier, the groundskeeper at Acacia Park Cemetery verified that Gabriel Stern is properly markered, but with a bronze marker rather than a granite one. Acadia Park Cemetery only allows bronze markers.

Dr. Stern died during World War II, when there was a prohibition against using metal for many non-war purposes. A granite marker was made instead and placed on the grave. In June 1947 the marker was replaced with a bronze one.

amanjo says:

August 5th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Fascinating!!!! I love everything about this post. And great research, Jane!