In 1932, Bill Wehrmann was placed for adoption at The Lutheran Children’s Home and Orphanage in Fremont.
He later learned about his adoption and even attended fundraising picnics that benefited the place which long served as a haven for children.
Decades later, Wehrmann was among 12 volunteers who gathered Saturday to help clean up the gravesite of children from the former orphanage.
The orphanage was situated where Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fremont is now.
Fifty-six children are buried at the gravesite in Fremont’s Ridge Cemetery. The gravesite dates back to the late 1800s.
The cleanup project began when Vicki Wehrmann-Sorensen told Joel Stoltenow, development officer of Lutheran Family Services, about the gravesite.
Stoltenow hadn’t been aware of it so she took him to the site.
“That’s when I realized it needed a little bit of care,” the Fremont woman said.
Wehrmann-Sorensen got permission to work on the site from Ridge Cemetery Sexton Jeff Hively.
She and her husband, Art, and other volunteers spent about four hours working at the gravesite.
Besides the Sorensens and Wehrmann and son, Chris, the multi-generational group included representatives of Trinity Lutheran and Good Shepherd Lutheran churches and Jeremy and Jim Siffring and Scott Licht of Siffring Landscaping & Garden Center.
Group members cleared old, scattered rock, pulled some weeds, raked the soil, relayed bricks and pavers, straightened a headstone and put down mulch. Jim Siffring also brought out a purple aster for a flower pot at the site.
During the summer, Wehrmann-Sorensen had scoured second-hand and antique stores for figurines.
A figurine is glued to a brick at each child’s grave marker. There’s also a small arrangement of angel figurines.
In addition, children of the Sorensens’ niece, former Fremonter Emily Derickson, painted colorful designs on rocks.
So artwork by Abe, 11, Saul, 9, Levi, 6, and Olive, 3, adorn the graves as well. A painted rock has been placed at each grave.
Stoltenow helped at the site, too, and made a Facebook video which has received more than 1,100 views.
“He was really struck by the oldest grave marker, which is of Minnie who died in 1892,” Wehrmann-Sorensen said. “It strikes you how difficult times were and how there was no family there to mourn for these kids.”
The Rev. Peter Graef, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fremont, started the orphanage in 1892. A building was dedicated a year later.
In a booklet called, “A Brief History of the Lutheran Children’s Home,” Graef is recorded as telling how he and his wife discovered the need for an orphanage.
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“We were in Fremont hardly half a year when within one week, we received two urgent requests to take care of several orphaned children,” Graef said.
Immediately afterward, the Graefs got a letter from a fellow pastor, a widower who himself was ill, to raise his two little daughters if he died.
After much consideration, Graef decided to establish the orphanage. The orphanage continued until it closed in the 1940s, Wehrmann said.
The orphanage could have become home to children for a variety of reasons, he said.
One or both of their parents may have died and there were no other relatives.
Or when people were poor, sometimes they sent their younger children to an orphanage, because their family couldn’t care for all of them, Wehrmann said.
When orphans died, they were buried at the site in Ridge Cemetery.
“The really bittersweet part is — this (site) looks so pretty, but we know virtually nothing about these children – what brought them there, what caused their deaths. Was a family member aware? We know there were sibling groups there,” Wehrmann-Sorensen said.
She knows the story of only one boy, because of something shared via Ancestry.com.
The boy, Basil Rupin, was 15 years old and had been out hunting for pigeons. When he returned to the home, a 6-year-old child ran to meet him and grabbed the stock of the teen’s gun. The gun discharged and hit Basil in his right eye. He died that evening.
A marker bears Basil’s first and last name.
While Wehrmann was working out at the site, he found white stones now used to mark the graves of two unnamed children from the orphanage.
Wehrmann, a former Fremonter, said he found it ironic that he dug up the white stones since he was adopted through the orphanage.
He is grateful for his adoptive parents, the Rev. Otto and Alice Wehrmann.
“The older I got, the more I realized how fortunate I was because I was adopted into Christian family and — but for the grace of God — I could have been in that cemetery,” Wehrmann said.
Wehrmann, now of Blair, said his father was the pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Scribner from 1938 to 1965.
Along with his parish duties, he planted new congregations. He also was involved in planting Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fremont.
Wehrmann believes it was important to spruce up the gravesite.
“Just doing something like that is a reminder to not forget those who went before us,” he said. “I realize how much I’ve been blessed along with anyone else who went through the orphanage system.”