By DL PERRIN
An effort to preserve a 19th century cemetery led to a personal discovery for a LaGrange County employee.
In December, Rita Lehner, who is the Geographic Information System administrator for the county was asked by the recorder’s office staff to define the boundaries of a long-forgotten cemetery in Eden Township. The Salem church cemetery along 1200 West dates to the 19th century and is being renovated by the Eden Township trustee’s office.
Surrounded daily by stacks of dusty, ancient county records, Lehner turns those records into useful information for the GIS system. She uses deed descriptions, old drawings, photographs and plat maps to create the modernized information that the public and county officials can access online. Working on the cemetery project, Rita dug into her stack of dusty tomes containing page after page of hand-drawn plat maps and deed descriptions recorded in the middle of the 19th century. There she found the Salem church, which led to another record book. When she opened the “1832 — 1982 Cemeteries of LaGrange County,” she made an amazing personal discovery.
“Imagine my surprise,” Lehner said. “As I was reading the names of the seven people who were buried at that little Salem cemetery, I found out my great x4 grandmother, Nancy A. Hart was among them. My family never knew where she had been buried. She was born in 1798 and died in 1868.”
Other people have taken an interest in the cemetery and had been searching the records for their ancestors and noticed the headstones stacked alongside the road. Someone notified Ezra Miller the county historian and he called Dawn Christner the Eden Township trustee. Christner had already taken action to preserve the cemetery parcel and contacted state officials about how to proceed.
“The state said to first clean out all the undergrowth and trees and seed the ground with some grass seed,” Christner said. “We cleaned it out, cut down the trees and leveled the land to ready it for seeding in the spring. I guess that is when people saw the activity and started wondering what was going on.”
The Salem Church, shown on an 1874 plat map, burned to the ground. But the church was clearly drawn on a plat map in parcel three of the former estate belonging to Nellie Prough. Back then, her land crossed into both LaGrange and Elkhart counties. The current deed description of the parcel surrounding the cemetery states the location of an ownership “exception” on parcel three.
It says, ‘. . except three-fourths of an acre subject to cemetery purposes.’
One issue uncovered during the property line research was that the neighbor of the property will lose 12 feet of land he thought he owned. Besides an error in property lines, there may also be an error in the number of graves located there.
The occupants of the cemetery, according to the volunteers of the historical society, are three children under the age of 5; one man and three women. Causing some confusion is that some of the land inside the cemetery’s boundaries has been farmed. But records show that resting somewhere within the cemetery parcel are: Elizabeth Elliott/1844, Martha Elliott/1817, Frances Ann Elliott/1848, Sarah J. Elliott/1849, Quincy F.H. Kiblinger/1850, Nancy A. Hart/1868 and Lovina Chrisman/1871. The headstones in the cemetery are not on graves. Instead, until recently, they were stacked together out in the open. No one yet knows where they should be placed.
When the cemetery was mapped by the county historical society members in the 1980s, they noted in their book that even back then the headstones were not properly seated.
“The stones are broken off and are standing against trees,” their entry reads.
At the cemetery recently there was a small, top portion of a headstone featuring the silhouette of a lamb. The last name of the family is missing but the first named cut into the stone is Nancy. The stone says she is the daughter of J. & B. In the cemetery record book the only Nancy listed is Nancy Hart (Rita’s ancestor) the 70-year-old wife of Daniel Hart.
On the website findagrave.com, it’s listed that nine people are buried in the cemetery, including a Nancy J., daughter of J.B. Hart. So there is confusion on just who, and how many people are buried in the cemetery.
Now it is up to Lehner to find out who owns the cemetery in which her great (x4) grandmother lies buried. In the meantime Christner will keep a watchful eye on the cemetery and prepare it to be restored and possibly find answers to the question of how many people are buried there.