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Small, dedicated group works to preserve pioneer cemeteries

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Remarkable as much for its inconspicuous tranquility as for its incongruity, Cedar Grove Cemetery, a silent affirmation of the life of Isaac Willett and his family – Hancock County, circa 1850 – abides under large, old trees from its day and between the brick and siding of modern two-story ranch houses.

“A lot of times, I drag my grandkids out here,” said Hancock County Cemetery Board President Nancy Leach. “They think it’s fun. My kids say I have an overactive imagination or too much time on my hands.”

Leach is out on a crisp spring morning west of Greenfield showing visitors one of the county’s 92 pioneer cemeteries, sacred plots of land flung throughout the county that are the final resting places of the area’s first residents and their descendents.

In her book, “Hancock County, Indiana Tombstone Inscriptions: One Hundred Years 1833–1933,” Hancock County genealogist Sue Baker notes that many pioneer travelers on their way west decided to make Hancock County home after burying a family member here rather than continue on and leave their loved ones behind.

Over time, family and church plots were developed in what are now dense tree stands, open fields, creek sides, culverts and round tops and housing developments.

For years now, Leach and a small group of historians, preservationists and genealogists – eight of them on a good day – labor to push back time in the “never-ending job” of trying to maintain and preserve the pioneer cemeteries.

To carry the name, the cemetery must have been established before 1850, and as such, the stones and markers are direct, physical links to Hancock County’s past.

Leach has been with the board, established by the county in 2001, for about seven years and now serves as president of the organization charged with finding, recording and restoring those links.

“You need to restore these things,” Leach said. “If you don’t, there’s a lot of county history that is simply lost.”

County history is something Hancock County Historical Society President Brigette Jones deals with regularly, and the society and the board collaborate frequently, especially assisting those tracking their lineage.

“We work together a lot of times,” Jones said. “We help each other out a lot.”

The group works primarily during the spring and fall to cut back, mow, reset and restore to the extent they can.

Though most of the board is over age 50 – “we’re not spring chickens,” Leach said – it gets a lot of assistance from the Boy Scouts, which makes the work lighter.

But in addition to simply preserving a part of the county’s past, members say it’s more about respect and family.

“I’m proud of my heritage and want to preserve it,” said Kelly Paugh, who’s been on the board for five years.

With her family in the area since the early 1800s and her husband’s family with roots nearly as deep, “we pretty well cover the county,” Paugh said.

Operating only on donations and a $1,500 stipend from the county, Paugh urged families to get involved and care about the monuments that mark the ones that came before them.

Cyndie True, whose daughter started tracing her husband’s family as a 4-H project over a dozen years ago, found relatives dating back to the county’s first census in 1830.

“We started looking around and found relatives all over the county.”

True, also a genealogist, who has been with the board for two years, said allowing the county’s historic cemeteries to pass risks losing more than a landmark.

“This is the last thing that shows this person walked the earth,” True said. “When it’s lost or destroyed, that’s sad.”

With many of the cemeteries on privately held land, the board urged landowners to consider deeding either the plots themselves or an easement to them to the county so they can be maintained.

“Many of them are completely landlocked,” Paugh said.

Armed with Baker’s book and following tips and leads, the board members scour the countryside to find lost or little known plots, sometimes coming upon something spectacular.

Last fall, the graves of John Wesley Gray’s parents were found in Center Township. Previously undiscovered, the graves were those of Mary Alice Smith’s in-laws.

At age 10, well before marrying Gray in 1868, Smith took care of James Whitcomb Riley and became the inspiration for “Little Orphant Annie.”

But with time eroding paths to the past like the Gray discovery, board members say their job is not getting any easier.

“There may be more that we don’t know about,” Leach said. “But if we don’t know about them by now, we might never know about them.”

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