Note: As the title implies, this series of occasional posts is intended to highlight individuals who have made significant contributions, in one way or another, to the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. Subjects of previous posts include Fred Dustin and Harlan I. Smith.
Ralph Stroebel has been mentioned at least three times previously on this blog (here, here, and here), so a post describing and honoring his contributions to the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley is probably overdue. Much of the following biographical information was compiled by Ira W. Butterfield and published in The Michigan Archaeologist (Butterfield 1988).
Born 17 July 1899, Ralph Stroebel grew up on a farm in Saginaw Township, not far from the home of his maternal grandparents, Henry and Katherine Steltzriede. [As followers of this blog are well-aware, the Steltzriede Farm site has been the focus of two seasons of archaeological research by the Castle Museum. Our interest in the site and our knowledge of its history can be traced directly to stories and research shared by Ralph.] Stroebel’s interest in archaeology and history was sparked early in life and as a child he collected artifacts he found on his father’s farm. While still a teenager, Stroebel had the good fortune to meet Fred Dustin, with whom he forged a friendship lasting until Dustin’s death in 1957. Under Dustin’s guidance, Ralph learned to document site locations and to number and catalogue the artifacts he collected.
Both on his own and together with Dustin, Stroebel discovered and explored many archaeological sites throughout Saginaw County. Among the thousands of artifacts he collected was a cache of 42 roughly chipped Bayport chert “blades” (including bifaces and flakes) now known as the Watson Cache (20SA420). Ralph published a description of this find in the journal American Antiquity (Stroebel 1937). Over the years, Ralph donated much of his well-documented collection to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. A portion of his collection was also donated to the Historical Society of Saginaw County.
The Michigan Archaeological Society was first organized in the 1920s and Ralph Stroebel was a charter member. While the institution languished during the depression and war years, Stroebel, Dustin, and a small group of like-minded individuals continued to meet informally to discuss local archaeology. When the society was reestablished in the 1950s, this group formed the core of the Saginaw Valley Chapter. Stroebel was active in the Chapter and served several terms as President of the group. He was looked upon by many as an informal mentor, always willing to offer guidance and encouragement to those just beginning to pursue their archaeological interests.
Stroebel’s interests weren’t confined to archaeology. As the years passed he devoted himself more and more to historical research and he was one of the founders of the Historical Society of Saginaw County. He assembled an extensive reference collection containing newspaper clippings, photographs, library references, and other scraps of information organized into files covering hundreds of topics on local history. He collected oral histories, scoured public records and archives, and compiled data into usable formats. Two of his larger research projects included locating all known cemeteries and burial plots in the county and identifying every sawmill and associated company that operated along the Saginaw River. Ralph amassed a substantial collection of tools and other items related to lumbering, farming, and the day to day activities of previous generations. Through library research and interviewing “old-timers” he learned how the various tools were actually used. Ralph became widely known as THE historian of Saginaw County and was named the official County Historian for the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners.
Perhaps Stroebel’s greatest contribution was demonstrating his belief that artifacts, knowledge, and information gained through research are only valuable when shared. He gave dozens of presentations to groups of school children and adults, he spent countless hours helping to develop exhibits at the Castle Museum, he researched and responded to hundreds of inquiries regarding local history, and he donated copies of his research materials to several local libraries and historical societies. Ralph Stroebel’s efforts in the fields of history and archaeology continue to be widely recognized and greatly appreciated. His contributions of collections, original research, and archival materials to the Historical Society of Saginaw County are still very much in evidence at the Castle Museum today.
Stroebel received recognition and a number of awards from local, state, and national organizations including an Award of Merit from both the Michigan Archaeological Society and the Historical Society of Michigan. The citation that perhaps best exemplifies Stroebel’s lifelong dedication and contributions to knowledge and understanding is the Robert H. Albert Community Service Award from the Greater Saginaw Chamber of Commerce. The award states “What a man does for himself dies with him; what he does for his community lives forever.” It is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary person. Ralph Stroebel died in Saginaw on 12 December 1987.