Thursday, March 25, 2010

Maintaining Our Collective Memory

During the nineteenth century, Allen County, Indiana, was one of the doorways through which German immigrants and settlers passed on their way into the "west." In fact, at one point the portage between the the Great Lakes watershed and the Gulf watershed on the southwest side of town was called "The Glorious Gate."

Not surprisingly, then, Fort Wayne/Allen County has a rich history and heritage. Sometimes that gets covered up. Twenty years ago there was great excitement when a lost, wooden lock was uncovered as I-469 was being built. The "Gronauer Lock" even got its own historical marker!

Just this week a lost piece of Allen County history was preserved for the future. Kevin Leininger's article in the News-Sentinel captures nicely the importance of such mundane things as cemetery's to our collective memories.

Churches should help maintain old cemetery

By Kevin Leininger
of The News-Sentinel

Anybody who's seen the film “Poltergeist” knows bad things can happen to people who build stuff on top of cemeteries.

So it may be a blessing – literally – that local businessman Don Stinson was the high bidder in Tuesday's auction of a 5-acre plot at Hartzell and Paulding roads that, despite its nondescript appearance, is believed to be the resting place of 42 southeast Allen County pioneers.

“I'm going to try to restore it. I've done it before (in Anderson), and it's fun and self-satisfying,” said Stinson, who paid $10,000 for the old Evangelical Lutheran Church Cemetery, which he hopes to donate to the Adams Township Trustee for ongoing maintenance when his project is complete.

The outcome particularly pleased State Rep. Phyllis Pond, who lives nearby. Before the auction she told anyone who would listen that, despite zoning that would allow the property to be used for a variety of industrial uses, state law protects the sanctity of historic cemeteries by obligating trustees to care for them after they are abandoned by their original owners.

And that's clearly what happened in this case, although some of the details are sketchy at best.

Records indicate the cemetery dates to at least 1860, when the cemetery was operated by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, Ohio Synod.

Nobody's quite sure when the cemetery became inactive, but Pond said that, for some reason, county employees leveled most of the tombstones and grounds years ago – meaning few people without good memories or musty old documents even knew it had been a cemetery at all.

Until Pond and others living nearby noticed Wiegmann's auction sign and started spreading the word about the possible loss of local heritage.

“I've been living here (across the street) for 23 years, and it wasn't active then. We would have people stop by, looking for their (dead) relatives,” said Janet McEvoy, who rescued what is believed to be one of the cemetery's few surviving headstones: the marker for Ezra Burgess, who died Oct. 18, 1856, when he was less than 2 years old. Other markers, if they still exist, are buried along with the bodies – at least until Stinson can resurrect them.

“This land is nothing but a buy,” auctioneer Ron Wiegmann told the small crowd that gathered for the 6:30 p.m. sale. Rich Vinson, also of Wiegmann, said comparable land often sells for up to $6,000 per acre. He said the company had heard of the property's past as a cemetery, “but nobody can prove it.”

Even so, many of the people huddled on a muddy field in southeastern Allen County on Tuesday were sure of its history – and happy it will apparently be preserved.

“Cheers to Phyllis (Pond),” said Lynn Bradtmueller, who also lives nearby.

This would not be the first time local government has helped preserve a once-abandoned pioneer cemetery. In 2006, the Allen County Commissioners spent $20,000 on a culvert that bridged a ditch near an old cemetery south of Monroeville, providing the access that volunteers needed to restore the 160-year-old plot.

But with a weak economy stretching townships' ability to help people in need, “It's an interesting dilemma, a Catch-22,” said Adams Township Trustee Brian Yoh. “We've already had to reduce money for people needing help. But nobody's approached us yet (about maintaining the cemetery).”

Pond said it's appropriate for government to maintain the cemetery, if necessary. But she's right to suggest an even better alternative:

There are plenty of Lutheran churches in the area with ties to the original German congregation. Presumably, there are also a lot of people living in the area with ancestors buried in what are now unmarked, uncared-for and almost-forgotten graves.

If members of my immediate or church family were buried there, I'd be willing to help maintain the place once Stinson is done with it. I hope that's exactly what will happen.

If government is forced to choose between the living and the long-dead, it's really not much of a contest.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger, or call him at 461-8355.

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