Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Thousands Came to Pay Respect

They came to share memories and to say one last "good-bye." By 9:30 am, the line to get inside Harmony High School was backed up three-deep. Slowly, but surely, more than two thousand people made their way inside to pay their respects.

An hour later, Rev. John Spiegel preached a sermon about forgiveness and healing, and urged those in attendance not to turn their grief into a lifetime of hate. A priest of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Ottumwa, Spiegel asked, "Would it not be better to love rather than hate?"

Spiegel told mourners to heed the example of mercy and forgiveness shown by the Pennsylvania Amish earlier in the wake of the terrible shooting rampage at a rural school that had left five girls dead. "When the balance of life is weighed down by a great hurt, it will not be made to balance by a great hate."

An eerie feeling hit some people that day as he made the comparison. Near Bonaparte, the bodies of Michael Bentler, his wife Sandra, and teenage daughters Sheena, Shelby and Shayne were discovered early in the morning on October 14, 2006. Son and brother Shawn had completed a shooting rampage that left his family brutally murdered. Hating Shawn for this tragedy would serve no purpose, Spiegel said.

Although the mass murders represented the worst crime spree in recorded Van Buren County history, this was not the first funeral where large masses of people paid their respects to a grieving family. The late Ralph Arnold told of one such funeral that took place on August 4, 1887 in the vicinity of Mt. Zion.

Faced with tragedy, it seems that eight-year-old Nora Gillett ran at least four and one-half miles looking for help. On August 2, Clarence Gillett, Nora Gillett and Edith Botts were spending the day with their three cousins, children of William Houk. Early in the afternoon, they told their baby sitter that they were going to the orchard, but instead slipped away to the river. Only ten-year-old Clarence could swim.

Not far from Fox Island, the children waded in the shallow water near the bank, but apparently wandered too far out, were drawn into a deep hole by the current, and drowned. Realizing the sad situation, Nora ran for help but got lost in the woods and wandered in the wrong direction, finally ending up west of Mt. Zion on the way to Kilbourne. At Kilbourne, she found the George Pratt family and told them about the accident. Within a short time, hundreds of people lined the riverbank from Fox Island to Ely’s Ford, in a search-rescue attempt.

All night they searched, and finally around 11 o’clock the next morning, five little bodies were recovered from the muddy water. Several helping in the search nearly drowned, including one man who had an epileptic seizure while exploring in deep water.

An estimated one thousand mourners saw the coffins that day at the Houk home. The three Houk children were in one coffin, with Edith Botts and Clarence Gillett in separate caskets. The Reverend James Welsh, assisted by Rev. Potter of the Methodist Church, preached a short sermon, using as his text Christ’s invitation, "Suffer little children to come unto me."

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick