Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clues come together in Mountain Lake mystery

Amateur sleuths believe the body found in the Giles County lake last month is Samuel Ira Felder, who drowned in 1921.

File September
   Human skeletal remains were found last month in the dried mud in the bed of Mountain Lake.

The Roanoke Times

File September Human skeletal remains were found last month in the dried mud in the bed of Mountain Lake.

Felder's WWI draft registration card, courtesy of Jim Dalmas.

Felder's WWI draft registration card, courtesy of Jim Dalmas.

Historical documents

Si Felder's Clemson yearbook entry

PEARISBURG -- The McCreery wingtip shoes made in New York offered one clue. The silver cigarette case and belt buckle with the fancy engraved initials -- first letter S, last letter F -- offered another.

But it was the class ring found Sept. 20 at the bottom of dried-up Mountain Lake that helped two Virginia Tech graduates who do genealogy research as a hobby uncover what they believe is the probable identity of the man whose remains were found alongside it.

According to newspaper clippings, Samuel Ira Felder, 37, fell overboard as he boated on the lake with his wife and friends late the night of July 23, 1921. Though divers searched for days, Felder's body was never recovered.

One Roanoke Times article dated July 29, 1921, was titled "Mountain Lake Holds Body in its Grasp."

Giles County investigators wouldn't go so far Monday as to say they believe the remains are Felder's. But they admitted that all the clues seem to point to him.

"Before I say yes, I want to look carefully at everything there is," Sheriff Morgan Millirons said.

The amateur sleuths, however, are convinced the remains are Felder's.

Jim Dalmas, a 1960 Tech graduate who lives in Jarrettsville, Md., has been trying to solve the mystery of the person's identity since the remains were found. His brother, John Dalmas, a 1963 Tech graduate from Evington, became involved in the search last week after reading in a South Carolina newspaper that a Clemson University research analyst had confirmed the class ring came from that school.

Lt. Ron Hamlin of the Giles County Sheriff's Office had contacted Clemson staff to check on the ring. After determining that it was a Clemson ring, Nancy James, a research analyst at the school, searched records for the graduating class of 1904 -- the date engraved on the ring's stone. At the time, the school was known as the Clemson Agricultural and Mechanical College, matching the letters "CA" and "MC" on either side of the ring.

Three men who graduated in 1904 had the initials "SF."

The Dalmas brothers began to research all three.

According to U.S. Census records they found, Felder was born May 10, 1884. A native of Orangeburg, S.C., he moved to New York City after graduating from Clemson. There he worked as an engineer for a telephone company.

A 1920 census shows Felder married to a woman named Catherine. A census from 10 years later shows Katherine Felder -- the first name spelled differently -- still living in New York, but widowed. The couple had no children.

"After we found all that, we were convinced it was him," Jim Dalmas said.

Then, while searching for potential relatives of Felder, John Dalmas found an article from a July 27, 1921, edition of the South Carolina newspaper The State that his brother said nearly made him fall out of his chair.

According to the article, a deep sea diver had arrived at Mountain Lake the previous day to search for the body of "S.I. Felder of Troy, N.Y., who fell overboard and drowned late Saturday night while boating with a party of friends."

After that find, Jim Dalmas said, "the two of us are convinced that it is Samuel Ira Felder -- no ifs, ands or buts."

The discovery of that article by the Dalmas brothers prompted The Roanoke Times to search archives from that date.

Roanoke Times stories said Felder and his wife had gone to Salem from New York to visit their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Bowman.

"The party were boating in the moonlight on the lake," one article said. Felder was in a canoe with his wife, Al Bowman and Nancy Logan when he fell into the water, it said.

The other people "saw him fall from the bow of the boat into the lake. He seemed to choke and struggle for an instant and then he was engulfed by the moonlit waves," leading his friends to believe he may have suffered from heart failure, the article said.

The rest of the party was fishing at the other end of the lake when they heard calls for help.

"They hastened alongside but all too late, for Mr. Felder was never again seen to come up," the article said.

Felder was finally declared dead in 1929, months after his father died, records show.

Ideally, Millirons said, he will be able to find a relative of Felder's to help determine whether the remains were his.

Anyone who has a link to Felder is asked to call Millirons at 921-3842 or e-mail mmillirons@gilessheriff.org.

"We want to know for sure," he said.

News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

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