Local News

Restoration revives run-down cemeteries
Project renews history, family trees at 6 sites
February 5, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Betty Baldwin's jaw dropped when she visited Newby Cemetery last summer.

After a report from her cousin two years ago, she envisioned the 19th-century graves of her relatives crumbling and covered by overgrown weeds and brush. What she saw was a pristine graveyard at 79th Street and Spring Mill Road that had been restored by John "Walt" Walters.

"Newby is my maiden name, and my fourth great-grandfather deeded the property to the county in 1851," the Monroe, Wash., resident said. "My cousin found it overgrown. When we went back -- to both our surprise, amazement and delight -- the place had been cleaned up. The before-and-after pictures are just incredible."

Born in Nora in 1928, Baldwin was delighted to find 26 legible stones bearing the names of relatives she is still placing in her family tree.

Newby is one of six abandoned cemeteries in Washington Township. Others include Bacon, Crows Nest, Deford, Ebenezer Lutheran and Fall Creek Union.

They have been neglected for decades, and upkeep is part of the trustee's job description. An article in the June 19, 1974, issue of The Nora Topics described the decay, but nothing was done until trustee Gwen Horth initiated a project to restore them to their original beauty two and a half years ago.

"When you see the stones, you think at one point these people meant something to somebody," Horth said. "This is bringing back history."

Many veterans, including John and William Deford who fought in the Civil War, were lain to rest in the township. After attending a conference and seeing Walters' work three years ago, Horth hired Graveyard Groomers for the task of refurbishing more than 1,000 headstones. She budgeted $30,000 a year for the project.

"It's an expensive project, but it's an important project," she said. "It's a labor of love. I don't think just any guy could do this."

Walters, who has been described as a dead ringer for a ZZ Top band member or a biker, puts his passion for history and stone carving into the work.

"It's history and artwork by the stone carvers," Walters said "It's real rewarding just saving the history."

Five of the six sites are refurbished, and work will begin this spring on Crows Nest.

Ebenezer and Fall Creek sit side by side. Headstones in the two largest abandoned cemeteries were broken from their bases, others were in multiple pieces and thrown over a ravine while more were sunken into the ground.

"Things have been moved, but there is always a clue left behind," Walters said. "It's like detective work or a big jigsaw puzzle."

Ammonia and water solution clean up the stones, and Walters adheres pieces back together onsite or in his garage workshop. To find the buried stones, he uses a metal rod to tap underground. A simple lever-and-pulley system on a tripod hoists large stones back onto their bases. A gravestone can take anywhere from two to 28 hours to repair.

"You want to do the least disturbance to the site as possible," he explained. "I start cleaning with a brush, using the gentlest means possible."

Bob Alloway of Indianapolis has kin buried in Ebenezer and enjoys genealogy as a hobby. While visiting, he ran into Walters cleaning up the site.

"He (Walters) can make a broken cemetery look seamless," Alloway said. "Can you imagine going to Ebenezer, a 150-year-old cemetery and it looks brand new? It was covered in poison ivy from one end to the other. It's like a living-history museum now."

Alloway is writing a book to give to the state library and helped Baldwin erect a sign marking the Newby Cemetery.

Through research of her grandfather's family, Marilyn Barber of Danville, Ind., discovered most of her ancestors originally from Maryland are buried in Ebenezer.

"Losing these cemeteries is losing our past and our history," she said, echoing Walters. "Personally, it would be losing a lot of my family. I have found so many new cousins who were also descendents of the families buried there."

Angela Tielking's interest in pioneer cemeteries sprouted when she discovered the neglected grave of her great-great-great-great-grandmother about four years ago in Hancock County.

"I am interested in all of our cemeteries, not just the ones where my family is buried," she said. "I wanted to thank her (Horth) for restoring the cemeteries and restoring them correctly. This is important for the whole state of Indiana. These cemeteries are our families and ancestors, and they are our history and heritage. We must care for them and protect them, or we will lose them."

Most of the genealogical information has been lost, but Horth is working with two Boy Scout troops on a project in which they would go through the cemeteries, writing down the names of people buried their so the township could post it on its Web site.

Email this Print this Send letter to editor Reprint info

Topics headlines

  Gannett Indiana network:  Indianapolis    Fishers    Lafayette    Marion    Muncie    Noblesville    Richmond