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Tom Rademacher

PAGES from the PAST: Antique Bible unites Tennessee woman with Ottawa County ancestors

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Tom Rademacher
The Grand Rapids Press

In the beginning, it was just another tattered book to add to her collection.

But today, 11 years later, it has established itself as a keepsake for coming generations. It's an heirloom to be treasured and passed on. And the old book has demonstrated something else: That when faced with tough choices, some people still make the right call.

Julie Flietstra of Grandville was just 12 when her mother, Judy, paid a few dollars for an antique Bible at a secondhand store in Sparta. The youngster added it to her collection of more than 100 old books, but the more she leafed through it, the more she came to understand that this was no unwanted tome.

Buried deep within the sacred pages was a snippet of a wedding gown, and of a man's striped suit. It also bore handwritten entries from the 1800s. A fern had been pressed inside the front cover. It also held letters, a marriage certificate, a photo, recipes.

Julie came to love the old book and all it had held. But she figured someone else might treasure it even more -- a descendant, for instance -- and so she started to sleuth.

She had little to go on, mainly that the Bible's original owners were Roxana Stauffer and husband Samuel, both gone now nearly 100 years. Using the Internet and other genealogical tools, she eventually tracked down the oldest living descendant -- Esther Gross, 67, of Nashville, Tenn.

And on a sun-dappled day last month, Julie and Esther met over Roxana and Samuel's tombstone in an Ottawa County cemetery so Julie could present the leather-bound Bible to its rightful owner.

It could not have gone to a more deserving descendant. Esther and her husband, Fred, have worked since 1970 as missionaries, spreading the word as far away as Columbia. And Esther, it turns out, always has been consumed with her ancestry. Though she knew volumes about great-great-grandparents Roxana and Frank, she never dreamed a Bible existed to help fuel her research and better understand her heritage.

When Julie, now 23, finally tracked Esther down last October, she stunned her with an e-mail disclosing the Bible's existence. Esther and Fred planned a road trip here for the rendezvous, not realizing that Julie was saving all the contents of the Bible as a final surprise.

The assorted memorabilia brought tears to Esther's eyes, and after presenting Julie with a lace doily she had crocheted for the occasion, Esther reminisced about a great-great-grandmother whose faith remained unshaken despite enduring unspeakable hardships while growing up in Chester Township, north of Conklin.

According to research Esther compiled over the years, Roxana lost her husband in 1899 when he climbed into a cistern to rescue two other workmen who were overcome by toxic fumes. Still, Roxana died with her eye on kingdom come, telling those gathered around her deathbed that "We have all been so happy together. You all have been so good to me. I'm so glad to go. Meet me over there ..."

Then, turning to face her great-great-grandmother's grave, Esther whispered, "I look forward to meeting you one of these days."

Julie said she never regretted deciding to go after Roxana and Samuel's descendant.

"Eleven years ago, little could I have fathomed that on this day I would be standing at the graveside of Roxana Stauffer, presenting her beautiful Bible to one of her descendants," she told Esther.

"I now think of it more as a memoir of Roxana's life. And if Roxy could see us right now, I am certain that she is smiling down with great delight to see that her Bible has made such a miraculous journey, and has ultimately found its way into the hands of a family member.

Tom Rademacher's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. A version also airs during the morning and evening newscasts each Sunday on WOOD TV-8. E-mail him at

© 2003 Grand Rapids Press. Used with permission