On the 93rd anniversary of his death


Dallas, Texas

November 6, 1992


Dear Great-great-grandfather Samuel,


Today is the 93rd anniversary of your death in the well by the brick farm house in Michigan, and I have so many thoughts and questions. Some of the questions I may yet learn answers to, such as who built the house and who owned it at that time.


For other questions, there will be no answers on this earth—and when I see you in heaven, I’m sure they won’t matter any more. But I still feel like asking them; I guess it makes me feel close to you. Questions like:


Flowers planted by current owner over the sealed cistern.

Did you wake up early on that last morning of your life? (Knowing your generation and life on a farm, most likely.) What did you have for breakfast? (Not Cheerios, or even corn flakes!) Was it cold when you woke up? Did you build a fire? Since it was November in Michigan, probably yes to both. It was undoubtedly coat weather, too. How long had you had the coat you wore that day? Did you wear it down in the well? What happened to it afterwards?


Were the leaves still on the trees, or had they fallen (probably). Was it rainy and raw? or sunny and pleasant, that last day of your life?


If you didn’t own the farm (as we used to think, but now a question has been raised about that)[1], did your Roxy go with you that day? Was the well-digging a big neighborly project? Were the women outside at the time of the tragedy—or inside working on food, or perhaps laundry? Having no idea who was present that day, there is no way of knowing if there were children around to witness the tragedy that was about to happen. Specifically, was your five-year-old granddaughter Fern there? (Nothing in her recounting through the years seems to suggest that she was.)


What time of day was it? morning or afternoon? Had you had any inkling of pending disaster? (Since you were only 55, probably not.) Were you in good health? Were you starting to feel your age?


There is no way of knowing how many men were present around the well or why you were the one who went into it after the worker collapsed. The very fact that you did tells me that you were a decisive, take-charge, courageous person…that you were a man of action…that you did what needed to be done without hesitation.


Obviously you went in after the worker as soon as he collapsed. And you “got him out.” But how? The casing that has closed the well doesn’t look very big at all. 


Had you and the worker gone down via a ladder? or a rope? something else? How did you get him up to help before collapsing yourself?


And when you collapsed (or began struggling for breath, or however it was)—what happened? Was there anyone else present who could have rescued you? Did anyone try? Or were they all too scared to try? Or were they too busy fussing over the rescued worker to notice you were in trouble? (not my best guess). Or did they try to bring you to safety, perhaps even succeeding, but it was too late? All these details have been lost to us over the years—what I wouldn’t give for a fifteen minute visit with my Grandma Hawkins! (that granddaughter Fern)


While all this was going on, was there panic and confusion? Screaming? Did the people come rushing out of the house? Was Roxy among them? Where was Roxy when it happened? Was she there—or did someone have to go and break the news to her? How bout your 79-year-old mother, Magdalena? Who broke the news to her?


Today we have things like CPR and 911. Would either of those have saved your life? (I think there is more chance of the former than the latter because you were pretty far out in a rural area to have been reached by emergency equipment and personnel.)


You missed the 20th Century by just 55 days—and that brings up a whole new set of musings. Had you seen a car yet? a telephone? a light bulb? All those things were on the verge of revolutionizing your world, but I’m not sure you had been touched by them yet. Neither had you been touched by television, computers, or space travel—or two world wars, abortion, and AIDS. You missed some things that were well worth missing—and the others? Well, they don’t hold a candle to what you gained.


When you scrambled into the well that day, you had no idea that your headstone would read, “He died to save another.” But it does.


You didn’t stop to think about it as an act of bravery and heroism that would be recounted in the family, generation after generation. But it has been. And not only in the family, but the people who live in the brick house today still talk about it.


You had no idea that the story of your heroism would be recounted again and again as a vivid object lesson of Jesus, the Son of God, giving His life for us. But it has been. You were never a missionary or a preacher, Grandfather, but I suspect that people have come to know Jesus as a result of your death—just like they did when your great-great-grandson, my brother, Don Moneysmith, died 65 years later.


And you had no idea that 93 years after your death later a group of your descendants would visit the site, that two of them would have their picture taken by the capping on that well, and that the picture and the story would go out to hundreds of people who had never heard of you. But it did.


Well, Grandfather Samuel, it has been nice visiting with you. I wish I could tell you how awesome it was to set foot on that farm and to stand by that well site after a lifetime of hearing about you and how you died. But then, maybe you know. Maybe you were watching that day. And if you were, I bet my mother was watching with you!


                      Your loving great-great-granddaughter, Esther Moneysmith Gross





Less than three weeks after the above letter was written, Esther Gross discovered in the “family tree trunk” (i.e., footlocker) at Cherokee Village, Arkansas, a 1926 Sunday school paper with an account of the death of Samuel Stauffer in the “well.” The account was written by a reporter who had interviewed Samuel’s daughter, Esther Stauffer Porter, who was 31 at the time of his death.


From that account, we learned the following and no longer have to wonder about~~


It was called a “cistern,” not a well, at the time it was built. And the account left no doubt that it was the Stauffers—Samuel and Roxy—who lived in and owned the brick house at the time of the accident.


It happened like this: A contractor from Rockford had been hired to do the job. With the project nearing completion, work was halted on a Saturday, November 4, because the Stauffers were devout Christians who did not labor on Sunday. Besides, the weekend would give the “walls” time to dry out.


During services on Sunday, special prayers were offered for revival meetings that were scheduled to take place the following week. Samuel assured his friends that he would be in attendance.


On Monday morning, the contractor and his helper arrived. The contractor sent the helper down into the cistern to “check on the air.” From below, the man reported that it was “terrible”—and promptly collapsed. Whereupon the contractor scrambled down into the cavity to rescue him. With the help of Samuel from above, the two men were able to get the collapsed man back to the surface.


But then the contractor collapsed! Immediately Samuel scrambled down to his aid. At some point (if not in the crisis of the first collapse, then surely at the second one), Roxy had come out of the house. We know this because the account says that Samuel, “his wife helping,” managed to get the contractor out of the hole—and then, predictably, he too collapsed.


So Roxy was not only present when her husband died, but she suddenly found herself in a life-and-death crisis, completely helpless, the only conscious person of the four at the site. Her husband lay dying in the cistern, two unconscious men undoubtedly sprawled at her feet (or just regaining consciousness)—and there was not a thing she could do. (See in the Obituary in Samuel that she was not alone and she did have someone to help her try and get him out.) By 10 o’clock, word of the tragedy had spread throughout the shocked community.


A few calculations show that at the time this happened, Roxy was 57, Samuel 56, and they had been married 34 years. In addition to Esther, their children were Charles, 33, married 7 years; Frank, 23, to be married 3 months later; and Mabel, 19. Their only grandchildren at the time were Effa, 9, and Fern, 5, and Mabel’s baby, Forrest, 14 months.

[1] We now know that Samuel did live in the house when he died.