MOUNT VERNON -- Shyness can kill you.
To be sure, there are many risks at the opposite extreme, but in the case of one Knox County child, shyness was the fault that sealed his fate. This is the story of Eddie Berger.
The morning of Feb. 15, 1876, was a stormy mess. Temperatures in Knox County had been warm for a few days, causing a thaw that left roads and fields muddy. But on the morning of the 15th, a storm moved into the area, dropping temperatures and stirring up wind and snow.
Nine-year old Eddie Berger lived with his tennant-farming family on the Dana Miller farm. The road and even the township were named after the Millers, and the family of David Berger sought work there when they returned to Ohio in 1874, after an unsuccessful spell homesteading in MacLean County, Illinois.
By returning to this part of Ohio, the Bergers were returning close to home, which had originally been Licking County, just a few miles south.
A brisk wind that morning was powering Dana Miller's windmill effectively, so Miller and David Berger had begun work there before first light, cleaning wheat of its chaff. Mary Berger got her two oldest boys prepared for school while feeding her younger two, Grace and George, breakfast. She gave Eddie money to get his boots repaired and sent him off early to accomplish that task before school.
A little later, Charlie was sent off toward the schoolhouse, which was located on the Rufus Ward farm on Kinney Road. Today, that's just north of where Kinney Road dead-ends at the Knox County Airport.
Little Charlie probably crossed the fields that are now the airport on his way to school that morning. Eddie likely cut across the same field, but headed northwest instead of northeast. He soon would have hit Possum Road, where he turned north and walked past the Knox County Infirmary and into the village of Bangs to get his shoes repaired. Eddie knew where the shoe repair shop was, sharing facilities with the W. H. Smith store.
Eddie peered cautiously as he arrived in Bangs, crossing to the opposite side of the road whenever he met anyone so that he wouldn't have to talk to them. After years of moving around in his childhood, Eddie was terribly shy and afraid to speak to people, so he avoided even saying hello wherever he could.
The boy opened the door to Smith's shop and poked his head inside, looking for the shoemaker. The only person he saw was W. H. Smith himself, according to recollections published by Smith 30 years later in a retrospective article in the Democratic Banner.
“Can I help you, young man?” Smith said.
“Is the shoemaker here?” the shy, blond-haired boy mumbled.
“I haven't seen him yet this morning, but he should be along presently,” Smith said.
“Oh,” the boy said. “Okay. I'll wait.”
He began to shut the door, which was letting the wind blow flakes of snow into the shop.
“You can wait in here,” Smith called out.
“That's all right, I'll wait out here,” Eddie said, closing the door. He stood in the wind and snow on the shop's door stoop for several minutes before the shoemaker arrived. Ushering the cold boy inside, the cobbler put two leather patches on the toes of Eddie Berger's boots to cover worn-through holes.
Pleased with the repairs, Eddie left the shop and headed toward the road past the Infirmary, again crossing the road to avoid speaking to another pedestrian.
Knowing that he was now running late for school because of waiting for the cobbler, Eddie struck out across the fields to head toward school. Even then, the school was locally nicknamed “The Lost Schoolhouse” from the way it was surrounded by trees on all sides and was hard to see, even from the road.
Crossing through muddy fields and woods in the snow, Eddie Berger miscalculated, and got lost. No one knows exactly where Eddie went that day as he tried to find his way to school. It is certain, though, that his fear of speaking to people unless it was absolutely necessary kept him from stopping at a house and asking for directions. After all, he was 9 years old, and had a reputation for being a bright boy. How would it look if he had to stop somewhere to get directions to his own school?
Eddie must have crossed and recrossed portions of northern Miller Township as he searched for the all-but-hidden schoolhouse. Dense woods in a heavy snowstorm, with his newly-repaired boots getting weighed down with mud could only have made things worse.
At the end of the day, Charlie returned home and told his mother than Eddie never showed up at school all day. She sent him to alert his father, who was still working at the windmill with Mr. Miller.
David Berger immediately set out for Bangs as daylight fell. Smith's store was still open, and Berger frantically asked about his son. Smith told the worried parent that the boy had gotten his boots repaired that morning, then headed off to school. He hadn't seen him since.
Berger went from farm to farm, asking if anyone had seen little Eddie. The most anyone could say was that they had seen the boy cross to the other side of the road that morning as they approached in the other direction. No one had spoken to him after he left Smith's store, and no one had seen him since then.
Berger kept the search up all night, without success.
At first light, neighbors formed a search party. They were able to identify Eddie's footprints heading south down Possum Road past the Infirmary because of the new patches on the toes of the boots. The boy had headed south, then cut east across fields. His prints were preserved in the frozen mud, but after leaving the road, the path was lost in the snowy fields.
Word came from a woman on Newark Road that she had seen a boy on the road about sunset the previous day. The woman lived on or near the hill where Range Line Road meets Newark Road (Ohio 13). She said that she saw the slight, blond boy come out of the woods and stand on the road on the hill.
He seemed confused, looking off toward the north at the lights of Mount Vernon. He then continued on east, plunging into the woods on the other side of the road and quickly disappearing.
This report did not seem to make sense. Why would Eddie be well past his school and continuing further east? No one was certain if this was really a sighting of Eddie or if it was merely one of those eccentric and not-at-all-helpful attempts of bystanders to get involved in the aftermath of a missing persons case.
Searchers kepts searching, but not a shred of evidence turned up of the missing boy. Other leads were investigated, but discarded when they failed to amount to anything. Days turned into weeks.
About a month after Eddie Berger's disappearance, a stranger suddenly walked into W.H. Smith's store in Bangs one evening. He walked up to the local men, gathered around the pot bellied stove socializing and said, “I know where the Berger boy is.”
This startled the men, who immediately began asking volleys of questions. The man begged off, saying there was no time to waste. He needed someone to lead him to the boy's father.
“I can take you there,” said Charles Casteel, one of the farmers present. Casteel led the stranger past the infirmary to Miller Road, where they talked to David Berger. The man said he could bring the boy back home the following day, but he needed money to get to the boy and to pay his way back on the railroad.
Berger gave the man every bit of money he had on hand and said that he'd get more to give him when his son was safely at home. The man smiled and said that would happen soon enough.
As the man departed from Charles Casteel in Bangs, he wondered if the boy would do well in the cold, as he had lost his coat during his ordeal. Casteel agreed that would be a problem in the cold snap they were having.
“If I could borrow your coat to wrap the boy in, we could return it when we come back tomorrow.”
Casteel gave his almost-new coat to the friendly stranger, who left on the train for Mount Vernon. Casteel returned to Smith's store and told the shopkeep what had happened. After he told Smith about giving the man his coat, Smith interrupted.
“You'll never see that coat again,” he said.
And he was right.
The stranger disappeared with the money and the coat, and the boy did not show up as promised the following day.
On April 15, two months to the day after his disappearance, Eddie Berger's body was found in the thawing snow on the east side of Robert Miller's farm in Pleasant Township, near the top of a hill overlooking the Kokosing River on what is today known as Glen Road, east of Martinsburg Road.
Comparing the location of the Robert Miller farm to the newspaper accounts, it sounds as if the boy's decomposing body was found approximately near the big curve before Glen Road turns east and goes on to Glen Hill Orchards.
The sighting along Newark Road had been real.
Looking at maps, this case seems almost inexplicable. Driving the roads of the area involved, though, makes it understandable how this unlikely tragedy could have happened. Eddie Berger was smart, and he was used to roaming free, as children typically did in those innocent days. He was no doubt familiar with the fields and woods near his home, and was confident that he could head southeast off of Possum Road and find his way to school by dead reckoning.
This should have brought him, at an angle, onto the road that is today known as Airport Road (I'm not sure what its name was in 1876). Having angled
onto Airport Road, Eddie's path was simple: turn right on Kinney Road, and the school was a short distance down the road to the left, in the woods.
After examinining the lay of the land, what I suspect happened was as follows: Walking with newly-repaired boots through the fields and woods, Eddie tried to avoid the muddiest spots that hadn't yet frozen in the snowstorm. This adjusting of his course could have caused him to drift north of his intended path.
When he got to a road, it was Kinney Road instead of Airport Road, but it was the stretch of Kinney north of Airport Road. If Eddie came out around the dip north of the intersection, he would not have been able to see the familiar southern section of the road. His intended path would have told him to go up the hill, which would have turned him north, away from the school.
If Eddie followed the road for a little bit, he would have eventually come out on the hill on Kinney Road that overlooks the broad valley of the Kokosing River. With the weather conditions that day, it is uncertain how far the boy would have been able to see. But if there was adequate visibility, Eddie would have looked down into the valley and saw the distant buildings of Mount Vernon, the county seat.
At age nine, was Eddie sufficiently well-traveled to grasp what he was seeing?
My guess is that he probably was not. Coming out on that hill and seeing a town may have made the little boy think that he had somehow gone in a circle and come out on a hill south of Bangs, which he had already left. He knew that to get to the schoolhouse, he needed to push east from Bangs. So, from Kinney Road, that's exactly what Eddie did. He headed east, taking himself further away from the school and his home.
At some point around midday, Eddie must have crossed Granville Road. What he may have thought it was is hard to say. If he thought that it was, finally, Kinney Road, he may have lost further time following it one way or another. If so, he almost certainly passed farmhouses where he could have gotten help, but whether through an almost pathological shyness, extreme embarassment, or growing confusion, he did not seek help.
Continuing east, he would have crossed the Newark & Mt. Vernon & Sandusky Railroad, which may have confused and frightened him further. The railroad which ran between his home and Bangs was the Columbus, Cleveland & Mt. Vernon Railroad. If Eddie mistook the NMVS tracks for the CCMV tracks, he would have been shocked to feel that he had somehow, yet again, blundered back toward Bangs.
Again, he had to go east to get to school. So the boy continued east as the early winter dusk began to gather.
When Eddie emerged on the hill south of Mount Vernon on the Newark Road (Ohio 13), it was around nightfall. In his confusion and likely hunger and developing exposure, the confused lad must have thought the lights of Mount Vernon were again the lights of Bangs. Impossible though it seemed to him, this would have meant he had, for the third time, ended up far west of school and home.
It must have seemed to the child at this point that he was in a never-ending nightmare where he kept traveling in the right direction, but never made any forward progress. Not knowing what else to do, Eddie again lit off to the east from Newark Road, probably thinking he was finding his way home, while instead he was actually walking further and further in the opposite direction. Somewhere well after dark, having blundered east past Martinsburg Road, the boy's strength gave out, and he curled up in the corner of a field fence, bewildered, terrified, and very, very alone.
That's where his body was found when winter finally broke two months later. A newspaper report comments without elaborating that the boy's body was in “grewsome” condition when found. One can only hope that the poor boy had slipped into death before any predators or scavengers found him. The approximate spot where Eddie Berger died is just before the curve on Glen Road, across from Mount Vernon Nazarene University's Couchenour Guest House and the Glen Hill Apartments.
In that overgrown field, there is an old stone fence post, right around the top of the hill on what was once Robert Miller's farm, the location described in newspaper reports as the spot the boy's body was recovered. Perhaps this post was the very spot where Eddie died. Its nearness to the road is the only reason his body was ever discovered at all.
Eddie was buried in the Miller Cemetery on Miller Road, in sight of the farm where he had lived, with the inscription, “Lost Feb. 15, 1876. Found April 15, 1876.” Today acid rain has nearly erased the limestone grave marker.
On the back side of the stone, near the bottom, is carved — as far as I was able to make out — an inscription which reads something to the effect of “This monument is erected by the friends who searched for our Eddie.” Atop the tombstone is the badly eroded carving of a lamb.
After Eddie's devastating death, the family did what they could to make a new start: David and Mary, and their surviving children, moved west to Colorado, then on to Wyoming, far, far away from the melancholy hills of central Ohio where they had lost a son.
Nearly a century and a half later, a great grandnephew of Eddie's, Charles W. Berger, ran across the story of the boy's tragic death while doing family tree research. The story was unknown to subsequent generations of the family, and Charles found it heartrending.
Charles is from Browning, Montana, where he lives on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. He felt moved to capture a reflection of the family's loss in an original poem, used here with gracious permission of Mr. Berger:
Gathered by Angels
Come on, little man, we need to hurry, time is running out
Mama and daddy with breaking hearts surely miss you now
Your tired arms and aching legs, coldness swirling at your face
Freezing water numbs your heart and slows your will to shout
Come on Eddie, no time left, breathe out your last goodbye
Murmur weakly, mom, dad, brother I love you
Do you hear angel voices, pulling you away
Answer beckoning call, let go with a final sigh
David, Mary, George, embracing in desperate pain
Their Eddie, soft blond hair, blue eyes, thin-lipped smile
Life ending swiftly, quietly, alone
Innocent laugh of their oldest child, not to be heard again
Paralyzed and freezing from aching grief
Unspeakable weight in vacant hearts
Imagining dying thoughts of first-born son
The house is quiet as stone, offering no relief
To a place of eternal love and joy
Angels gathered son and brother
Although now torn with shattered lives
One day they'll meet again, with their little boy.