RESTORING DIGNITY: Cemetery commission rights years of neglect in pioneer graveyard

Vandals and fallen tree limbs over the years had left the cemetery in a state of disrepair. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Time had not been kind to the relatively small cemetery on a quiet country road. Falling trees and vandalism had taken their toll over the years.

Hinchman Pioneer Cemetery, just off Morristown Pike in Greenfield, was in a bad state of repair.

With about half the headstones crumbling and others buried beneath the dirt, a nonprofit conservation group set out earlier this year to restore dignity to the graves of those laid to rest there.

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The Hancock County Cemetery Commission partnered with local business Greenfield Granite Co. to restore the cemetery, where most graves date to the mid- to late 1800s.

It’s a past worth preserving, say commission volunteers, whose mission is to locate, record, restore and maintain all pioneer cemeteries in the county, as a tribute to those who settled the area.

A pioneer cemetery is one with graves dating to the 1850s.

There are currently 93 known cemeteries within Hancock County, about a third of which are considered pioneer cemeteries, said longtime commission member Tom VanDuyn.

The commission was organized around 2002, called upon by the county to maintain local cemeteries. The group gets about $5,000 a year in county funds to cover supplies and professional help, but most of the work is done by volunteers.

The commission is called on to help deal with deterioration, neglect and maintenance.

“A lot of graves in these old cemeteries are Civil War-era people,” said VanDuyn, 78, vice president of the cemetery commission.

The 10 or so volunteers are advancing in age, he said, but are driven by a desire to restore honor to local cemeteries that become frayed or forgotten over time.

Such is the case at Hinchman, which sits just south of Thornwood Preserve, on East Steele Ford Road in Greenfield.

The commission set its sights on restoring Hinchman after learning about four pioneer headstones that had been sitting in storage at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department for nearly half a century.

Among those was the headstone for Eliza Tyner, who died in 1886 at age 52.

Not knowing exactly where the grave stones came from, the commission turned to a catalog of headstone inscriptions compiled by past member Sue Baker — who roughly 50 years ago compiled a comprehensive book of Hancock County graves dating from 1833 to 1933.

“This is a really good book for us. It’s one we use constantly to locate grave markers and track down information,” VanDuyn said.

Once they realized the displaced gravestones were from Hinchman Cemetery and saw firsthand the cemetery’s state of disrepair, commission members reached out to Greenfield Granite for help in refinishing the old gravestones there.

“They worked with us on pricing and spent quite a bit of time there. Our hats are off to them for all their hard work,” VanDuyn said. “They did in two months what would have taken us a year.”

Amie Strohl, whose family has owned and operated Greenfield Granite for 125 years, was happy to help.

“It was very rewarding because there was a lot of stuff buried in the ground that you wouldn’t even know was there, and we brought it back to where it was supposed to be. They found gobs of stones buried in the ground from the late 1800s,” she said.

Strohl, who is the fifth generation of her family to own the business, has also restored grave markers in a Morristown cemetery and is about to do a similar job at Blue River Cemetery in Shelbyville.

“It’s important because these cemeteries and grave markers are the final tribute to these people who are buried there. It’s their memorial to them,” she said.

The Hinchman Cemetery restoration took about two months, but it completely transformed the look of the historic cemetery, VanDuyn said.

“There are many other pioneer cemeteries in our county that need work. Getting folks interested in helping do the work is the key,” VanDuyn said.

The volunteer-based cemetery commission meets at the Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield the first Monday of the month, at 6:30 p.m. in the Indiana Room. The public is invited to attend.

With more people joining the effort, “we hope to get more graveyards in tip-top condition. A lot of them are abandoned, and the weeds and trees have just grown up and encroached on them,” said VanDuyn, who is driven to continue restoring the cemeteries for as long as he can.

“We feel an obligation to honor the people in these final resting places. A lot of them are our relatives,” he said. “They made our county what it is today. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”

The commission’s officers include: Bill Westfall, president; VanDuyn, vice president; Janell Kinder, treasurer; and Nancy Leach, secretary. Other members include Darlene Apple, Jennifer Burk, Nancy Merchant, Cyndie True and Renae VanDuyn.

VanDun said True is a perfectionist when it comes to cemetery restoration. “She’ll go through a graveyard and figure out relationships between the people there and figure out different relatives. It’s kind of amazing,” he said.

He also sang the praises of Leach, who led the group for years. “Without her guidance, it wouldn’t be what it is today,” he said.

For information on joining the commission’s restoration efforts, call Westfall at 317-498-3410 or email him at [email protected].

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The Hancock County Cemetery Commission is looking for volunteers to help in its mission to restore and care for cemeteries in the county.

The commission meets at 6:30 p.m. on the first Monday of the month in the Indiana Room at the Hancock County Public Library. The public is invited to attend.

More information is available by calling the commission’s president, Bill Westfall, at 317-498-3410 or by emailing him at [email protected].