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Wilmont preparing for 50th anniversary of fatal crash

WILMONT, Minn. -- By any standard, it was a horrific car crash: Nine people dead and 38 children, ages 1 to 39, were left without one or both of their parents.

Now, almost 50 years later, the small southwestern Minnesota town of Wilmont is coming together to memorialize the 50th anniversary of the crash, which remains Nobles County's largest tragedy.

The crash occurred in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 1960, about 20 minutes after seven people from Wilmont finished their night shift at Campbell's Soup Co. in nearby Worthington, Minn. They regularly car-pooled and on that night happened to all be piled into a car driven by 41-year-old John Voss.

Voss' wife, Lola, 39, also was in the front seat, and the other passengers included John's sister-in-law, Martha Voss, 49, Alice Schroer, 39, Agnes Gerber, 57, Dagney Bunkers, 43, and Elaine Lueck, 36, who was the crash's sole survivor.

Of the passengers, one was seated in the front seat with the Vosses, and four had piled in the back, according to Daily Globe reports at the time.

In the other vehicle were three people: driver Robert Buchman, 21, who had just a month earlier returned home after a 5-year stint in the Navy; Worthington's Dorothy Buckner, 21, whose husband was in Germany serving in the Army; and 17-year-old John Clark, who dreamed of becoming a journalist.

The trio had met up at a Worthington tavern earlier in the evening, and historical accounts say they had stopped at several others. Later, Buchman agreed to give a fourth person a ride home to Wilmont. They had dropped that person off and were on their way back to Worthington when they rounded a bend in the road and met Voss' car head-on.

Buchman's car went over the top of Voss' car, sheering off its roof and finally landing 100 feet later before rolling multiple times, according to Daily Globe reports.

The accident crushed the close-knit community and drew national media attention, including a story in the September 1960 edition of Life magazine which included photos of each of the 38 children affected.

"When (the crash) became known around town, everybody knew them or were related to them," said Audrey Brake, one of 15 people from Wilmont serving on the organizing committee for next year's 50th anniversary memorial. "It was just unbelievable that that many in one community could be gone."

The crash had the biggest impact on the Vosses' six children who instantly became orphans.

Brake said despite hopes to keep all six children together, the three oldest Voss children remained in Wilmont with an aunt and uncle, while the younger three ended up with an aunt and uncle in the Twin Cities area.

Additionally, many other children were left with only one parent after the crash. Martha Voss had seven children, Schroer had nine, Gerber had 12 and Bunkers had three. Buckner, who was riding in the second vehicle had one child.

Brake said one of Gerber's daughters is now on the committee to help create Wilmont's memorial.

"It has affected them in so many different ways," said Brake. "You don't realize it, but at that time ... you just had to buck up and do what you could. There was no psychologist or anybody that came in to help."

In addition to holding a memorial event next August, the committee wishes to purchase a memorial of some kind that would permanently honor those who died in the crash. They've already been hosting fundraising events and hope to raise $2,500 for the memorial.

"I just thought it was something that was such an impact on our community of Wilmont," she said. "It should be remembered ... in a way that would be good for the families."

Julie Buntjer is a reporter for the Worthington (Minn.) Daily Globe, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

How to donate:

Donations for the memorial can be sent to the Commemoration Committee, in care of the City of Wilmont, 316 Fourth Ave., Wilmont MN 56185.