Historic Swiss museum in Grundy facing long recovery from theft

Staff photo by Ben Benton The kitchen at the Stoker-Stampfli Farm Museum remains in disarray after the building was burglarized on Nov. 12 or 13. Grundy County Swiss Historical Society president Jackie Lawley looks over the mess and empty cupboards the thieves left behind.

GRUETLI-LAAGER, Tenn. - Grundy County authorities and Swiss Historical Society members hope someone with a sharp eye spots items stolen last weekend from the Stoker-Stampfli Farm Museum in Gruetli-Laager, Tenn.

Literally hundreds of items were taken from the Swiss family farmhouse that serves as the historical society's museum and the site of its annual heritage festival.

For instance, a kitchen table once set for a family dinner now is empty of plates and silverware. The cabinet doors in the kitchen stand open and empty.

"The cupboards are bare," Jackie Lawley said sadly on Thursday. She's the historical society president and museum curator.

Grundy County Sheriff Clint Shrum said they have no leads in the burglary that is believed to have happened Nov. 12 or 13. A photographer using the old farm as a backdrop discovered an open back door late last Friday and alerted officials.

On Thursday this week, the museum was just as empty as it was after thieves had hauled away an estimated $6,600 worth of antiques from the display. A set of muddy tire tracks leads through the grass from the entrance gate to the back door.

An inventory of the stolen items reads like a packing list from a pioneer wagon. Dishes, furniture, kitchen wares, presses for cheese and grapes, farm implements, a spinning wheel, a trunk, books, a rocking chair. The crooks even took gift items from the museum - T-shirts, maps and flags.

They stole a horse-drawn plow, and tried to take old canned jars of food that were used as a display, according to Lawley.

Grundy County is home to many descendants of the Swiss families who settled in the mountaintop community starting around 1869. About 100 families purchased property - about 100 acres each - in the Gruetli-Laager area. At the time it was known simply as Gruetli.

Those families discovered they hadn't purchased the picturesque farmland they expected. Instead, they found their new land filled with trees and hills, so scraping out a living those first years was very hard.

Lawley and her husband, Marvin, live in the Suter Home in Gruetli-Laager, one of the area's five remaining historic Swiss farmhouses, and Jackie Lawley's family home place. Her roots, understandably, reach deep into the Cumberland Plateau. The Suters moved to Grundy County in 1885.

Thieves burglarized the Stoker-Stampfli Farm House once before. The last time was in 2000, before the society owned it. The last owner, Rose Marie Stampfli, had recently died.

Lawley said the recovery from that theft was gradual.

One hard-working supporter of the society and museum, Brenda Ruling, was particularly stricken when she saw the museum Sunday.

"Brenda just broke down," Lawley said, as emotion crept into her own voice.

"Why is there such disrespect?" she said. "It's disrespectful to come into someone's house, but when you're trying to protect a piece of history and people violate that, it's just very disheartening."

Not everything was taken, however. The thieves got the Stampfli family baby crib down the stairs, but had filled the crib with too many jars of canned food. It was so heavy they simply left it where it sat, she said.

The financial blow is significant, and now potential visitors will get to see only a fraction of the original display.

"So much of the interior stuff is gone; churns and rocking chairs, and chests and pieces of art, the big sideboard that was donated by a fellow from Chattanooga," she said.

Well-wishes and support poured in from the community, the Lawleys said.

"We have people now canvassing all the antique shops," she said. Historical society contacts across the region have their eyes peeled for Swiss-oriented antiques and memorabilia.

Folks in Gruetli-Laager hope the stolen items are found and returned.

"I think it's terrible," Anita Layne said at the Gruetli-Laager Senior Activity Center on Thursday.

"Maybe they'll feel guilty and give it back," she said.

Kelsie Davis said he has donated a thing or two to the museum over the years, including a farm machine that sowed seed. He hoped it was too big to take.

"I'd do anything I could to bring anybody to justice on something like that," Davis said.

The sheriff said investigators need help from the public. Anyone with any information about the burglary is asked to call the Grundy County Sheriff's Office at 931-692-3466.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.