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New fittings spruce up symbolic stone

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – With the recent aesthetic improvements to the plaza in front of Bethel College’s Administration Building, it wouldn’t do to have a “naked” threshing stone sitting there.

Used briefly for threshing wheat in the Great Plains (mostly Kansas) in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the stone has become Bethel’s primary visual symbol and the mascot for the athletic teams, which are called Threshers.

In the past year, the Ad Building plaza has been resurfaced and had new landscaping. Nathan Bartel, assistant professor of literary studies, who has an office on the building’s second floor, noticed that “the stone looked naked, not as good as it could, especially with the increased and renewed vision for campus presentation.”

He made that observation to his grandfather, John Gaeddert of North Newton – and not idly, since Gaeddert is known for his wood sculptures, especially those that emerge from “found” pieces such as fenceposts and old scrap wood.

The threshing stone – made of limestone and “toothed,” meant to be hitched to a horse and pulled over cut wheat stalks to knock the grain loose – has long been in front of the Ad Building, but removal of the old crabapple trees made it obvious the yoke attached to the stone was rotted beyond repair and would have to go. The stone sat for months without one.

“After Nathan and I talked about it, I called Glen Ediger, who has made a study of threshing stones,” Gaeddert says. “I asked him where we could find a yoke most like the original.”

That may be an unanswerable question, however. The stones were used for a very short time, since the coming of the German/Russian Mennonites to Kansas, bringing with them the seed for the hard red winter wheat they had grown in Europe, nearly coincided with the introduction of mechanical reapers. By now, most if not all the original wooden yokes on any remaining stones are long gone to other uses or the elements.

Since Gaeddert loves to use hedgewood (Osage orange) in his sculpture, he decided on that for the new yoke.

“When John asked me if hedgewood was appropriate, I said it was probably not available in Kansas when the stones were used,” Ediger says, “but it is still a good wood, and it looks great [for the new yoke].”

Gaeddert and Bartel went to Goessel to take the dimensions of the yoke (likely not original) of the threshing stone in front of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church building. Gaeddert then went to Wade Brubacher’s farm on the Walton Road north of Newton, where he found some fenceposts “that were weathered and had been in the ground a while.”

“It took about three weeks [to fashion the yoke],” he says. “I scraped the posts with a hand-scraper – there was a lot of weathered, ‘dead’ wood.”

Gaeddert’s son-in-law, Bartel’s father Allan Bartel of North Newton, helped make the metal fittings that attached the crosspiece to the yoke’s side-pieces. The badly rusted pipe going through the center of the stone was replaced with a piece of solid, one-inch iron. Bethel maintenance worker Fred Unruh helped bolt the yoke to the new “axle.”

And finally, once the yoke was installed, Gaeddert consulted with Les Goerzen, director of Bethel’s physical plant. "We turned it 180 degrees, because we decided the other side looked better.”

The finishing touch to the Ad Building stone is a plaque now in production. It will bear these words: “A STUDENT IS A SEED – Just as this threshing stone helped the Mennonite pioneers free life-giving kernels of wheat from their dry outer husks, so Bethel College commits itself to help students discover their own goodness, that they might grow in intellect, character and spirit, becoming their best selves.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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