Goshen News, Goshen, IN

October 21, 2012

Goshen cemeteries full of life, stories, scenery


GOSHEN —  On a picture-perfect fall day, Dan Leichty looked out over the wide expanse of lawn and said it was a beautiful view, full of old trees, singing birds and residents biking and walking on a nice afternoon.

And yes, this view also included tombstones and grave markers.

“This is just too nice of a place to not use it for other things,” Leichty said, taking Violett Cemetery.

Leichty has worked as the director of cemeteries for the city of Goshen since 2004, when the City Council passed an ordinance establishing a Board of Cemetery Trustees, the Cemetery Department and Leichty’s position, consolidating the city’s cemeteries into one entity.

His day-to-day duties keep him at Violett Cemetery. The only other full-time employee for the cemeteries is assistant director Burt Matteson, who oversees Oak Ridge and West Goshen cemeteries. Daily duties for both vary from selling plots to taking care of the grounds, and everything in between.

“In the summer, we get a lot of genealogy,” Leichty said. “I help as I have time. It’s neat to see what people come up with.”

Each cemetery has a distinct air about it. Violett is nestled by the river, while Oak Ridge is sprawling and West Goshen is quiet and smaller, with neat lines as opposed to the meandering rows of the other two spots, Leichty said.

Leichty said he decided a job as a caretaker, even for a cemetery, would be “interesting.” He said he likes being able to help families take care of their loved ones, and the cemetery itself can often have cathartic qualities for those dealing with the loss of a family member.

“They’ve often been at the funeral homes just before they come out here,” Leichty said. “They come out here, they can get outside, scatter around and look at plots — they can even laugh, think about the good times... I’ve seen some sad times, but if we can make those sad times better with some healing for loved ones, that’s good.”

The Goshen cemeteries are now governed by the Cemetery Board, made up of five members, Leichty said. They meet four times a year to discuss the cemeteries. Before the consolidation, the cemeteries would have been governed by private boards, he said.

Sometimes the former private boards makes Leichty’s job difficult, especially when he’s searching for past records in the cemeteries. While he and Matteson have spent many hours inputting the old paper records into a digital system, not all of them work with each other, or include the same name.

“Sometimes when I can’t find someone, I turn to (local historian Jeff) Keim’s index — it takes a little bit of detective work,” Leichty said. Keim’s historical research has been put into one book on the cemeteries, and has helped Leichty and Matteson on many occasions when they have questions pertaining to the cemeteries or specific graves.

Statewide, Hoosier cemeteries are governed through the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, under the larger umbrella of the Department of Natural Resources, according to the state’s website, available at www.in.gov/dnr/historic/2832.htm. The state has mandates for all aspects of cemetery care, from how to deal with old burial grounds to what is defined as human remains.

Residents living on through their graves

With all this time spent among the historical markers of Goshen’s past, Leichty said some tenants of the cemeteries still have some fame after they pass on. Stories range from the tragic, such as the death of an entire 19th century family in an accident, to the heart-warming, such as the tales of genealogists finding lost relatives.

One now-cemetery resident Leichty has heard of is “Goshen Bill,” in relation to local Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. While Leichty said he didn’t know Goshen Bill’s story, a quick Google search revealed the story of a man named William Henry Caldwell, known as “Goshen Bill” to many.

Goshen Bill was “a little skinny black man with one wooden leg and a glass eye, and the longest, boniest fingers anyone had ever seen,” according to the website www.hindsfoot.org, a collection of historical A.A. materials and stories from the northern Indiana area. “When explaining to you the error of your ways, he would take one of those fingers and point it right in your face, and you listened!”

Goshen Bill helped many in local A.A. meetings in Goshen, Elkhart, North Webster and Kosciusko County. His grave has become a destination for some of those who hear of him through the meetings, Leichty said.

The webpage that gives some of his history also has a transcript of one of his inspirational talks from 1981.

“I’ve had my seventeen years of pretty good times! And I don’t want nobody to interfere with it,” Goshen Bill said at the 1981 meeting. “Huh! I come here to quit drinking, I didn’t come here to quit fighting. And if you want to see a battle, you let somebody try to make me take a drink. Then I’ll show you what the old man can do! Because I don’t want it, I don’t need it, and it isn’t necessary.”

Beyond tragic or heart-warming, however, are some tales that invoke a bit of the spookier side of life. Superstition surrounds one grave in particular at Oak Ridge Cemetery, according to Matteson.

Michael Bashor, one of the founders of Bashor’s Children’s Home, is buried in one of the oldest parts of the cemetery, and the angel that overlooks his grave has been the subject of many stories, according to Matteson.

The angel has supposedly cried tears of blood, according to folklore Matteson has heard. That portion of the cemetery may also have a ghostly woman who walks near Bashor’s grave, though Matteson said he doesn’t believe those tales.

Other stones are known not for who they’re marking, but who they were carved by. John Slaughter’s tree trunk headstones are very eye-catching in Oak Ridge. Slaughter himself is one of the occupants, there, too.

“My favorite thing about this cemetery is that I’ve been here seven years, and I can still drive around and see something I’ve never seen before,” Matteson said on another beautiful fall day as he drove around Oak Ridge in a golf cart.

The earliest known burial in Goshen is at Oak Ridge, too. Allen Thomas, an infant only 25 days old, was buried in Oak Ridge in 1832 — just after Goshen was settled.

Keeping up appearances

Leichty said the largest concern with the cemeteries today is upkeep — between the three cemeteries, there are around 100 acres of land to mow, trim, hedge and otherwise tend through four seasons. The cost of maintenance for the property is large, and only grows larger as the cemeteries expand, he said.

For the 2013 proposed budget, the Cemetery Department has been allotted $194,576 to pay for staff, supplies, repairs and other operating costs. These funds are comparable to what the department has received for the last few years, according to Matteson.

“Gasoline goes up,” Matteson said. “A lot of the part-time labor costs have been basically frozen for last few years. We’re getting by on less part time labor than we used to. I don’t know if we’re just more efficient or why, but we’re getting by on less. Most of our other costs are pretty similar.”

The costs of cemetery plots go up regularly, too, according to Matteson.

“The City Council, rather than coming back to it every year, decided to set up a plan,” Matteson said. “The plan says there will be an automatic increase every year for 15 years. We’re about halfway through that this year. It goes up 2 to 3 percent every year.”

However, don’t worry about the cemeteries running out of room anytime soon. Matteson said he’s seeing a trend toward cremation, especially as finances for families become tighter and the practice becomes more socially acceptable. All three cemeteries have at least some land left available, with large sections of Oak Ridge and Violett still untouched.

“The cemetery just isn’t expanding as rapidly as it was expected,” Matteson said, looking out on the as-yet-undeveloped land of Oak Ridge.

For more information on Goshen’s cemeteries, visit www.goshenindiana.org/content/cemeteries or www.dickersonlanding.org., which has a section on Oak Ridge Cemetery compiled by local historian Tom Riggs.