Worldwind Summer Cemetery Tours

John A and Elizabeth “Betsy” Troxell Long, Photo by Lori Samuelson

Last week I mentioned I combined a cemetery tour of ancestors with my husband’s 50th high school class reunion. Today I want to go into depth about planning a whirlwind cemetery tour.

Most family historians have a list of places they want to visit – to walk in their ancestor’s footsteps, see the sights, and reflect at the site where their family permanently rests.

I know I was surprised when I learned that in many European countries, remains are dug up if the family did not continue paying rent to the church. The remains are then gathered with other deceased whose family didn’t pay up and reinterred together in a common grave. Sometimes, the tombstone is placed as a pathway or wall around the cemetery. Other times they’re destroyed. I’ve even heard that occasionally, the stone is bought by construction crews to reuse.

That also happens in the U.S.; my husband’s Harbaugh family left Waynesboro, Franklin, Pennsylvania for St. Joseph County, Indiana after the Civil War. They left behind two deceased children in the Old Union Cemetery. That church cemetery was sold and for those who did not claim the graves, the bodies were interred in a mass grave in Green Hill Cemetery as the new church did not want to care for the cemetery of another church’s former parishioners. The tombstones were transferred to the new cemetery and supposedly reside in the same order they were originally in but are now laid flat instead of upright.

I have a few family members I still don’t know where their remains are located – Daniel Hollingshead likely on his farm in Somerset, New Jersey, John Duer probably with a missing headstone in Kessler Cemetery with the rest of his two wives and most children, and Mary “Polly” Dennis Hodge Adams Elder Search somewhere in Mercer County, Ohio. I may have even missed a husband for Polly! More research is needed for those folks.

While my husband and I returned to our childhood home area we decided to visit the graves of family in that location. We happened to arrive earlier than expected and were only 10 minutes from Oak Hill Cemetery where my mother, maternal grandparents, and great-grandparents are interred.

I had routed the distance between cemeteries with the plan to save time and gas by going directly from one to the next. I had also contacted the cemeteries for maps but not all complied. If it is a large cemetery this is an important first step.

Come prepared as you don’t know what you’ll find. I was saddened to see that my mom’s flat stone was covered with dirt. It had sunk somewhat and the grass hadn’t been trimmed which made it appear even lower. That, and the remains of dried cut grass covering it, didn’t help.

Luckily, I had brought a shovel, garden gloves, D-2 which still didn’t work, Krud Kutter, bottled water, a soft scrub brush, and rags. I should have brought garden shears to trim the grass. Learn from my mistake! It is not fun to try to pull the grass out with your hands.

My great-grandfather is buried in the old section of the cemetery as he died young in the 1919 flu epidemic. Funny how I remembered exactly where his grave was located. My grandmother would tend it when I was small and I often accompanied her. Um, yes, she had a cemetery gardening kit she transported in the trunk of her car and it did include shears. I thought about it when I didn’t have the shears with me.

I am so thankful that Find A Grave had photographed that cemetery years ago as the stone is now unreadable. Vandals had destroyed the photo it once held and removed the top, which I believe was a cross. I also have a rubbing from years ago which I’m glad I saved.

The next stop was where my husband’s maternal grandparents and great-grandmother are buried, about 10 minutes farther away. We had never been there before. He attended her funeral but not the burial at the cemetery.

I knew the section but had no map of Ridgelawn. This hasn’t been the most friendly cemetery I’ve corresponded with over the years. They refused to provide burial information for years until I discovered a book in the Germany Library in Tampa that stated his great-grandmother was buried there. Another call only gave me the grave section. I didn’t bother to try to get a map as I hadn’t planned on visiting at that time.

Luckily, I happened to just park the car directly across from where the family is buried. I LOVE coincidences! Saves so much time. Car is on the left, the stone is where that little bit of red (my husband) is showing to the left rear of the large upright stone in the middle:

The following day we were going to visit where my husband’s parents and my dad and paternal grandparents were interred as it was in the next county over and on our way home. The cemetery had sent me maps of the sections but not a map of the cemetery itself which became problematic. The signage was down in many areas and we could not find the Memory Section. Turns out we were close but it wasn’t until we returned home that I wrote back to get specific directions did I realize we were just steps away. Sigh! Will use the map for an upcoming visit.

Why do cemeteries bury people in all different directions? Between upright and flat stones going north, south, east, and west we gave up. We did find his parents and had to clean the graves. Like with my mom’s they were weed-infested. We also realized that his dad’s death date was not inscribed which we had paid for years ago. The cemetery was supposed to send pictures when the engraving was done but had one excuse after another. I put in a request for Findagrave but no one went out so I gave up.

We had considered this cemetery as our final resting spot since it contained both our families but after seeing the condition and getting the response we have from the office staff, decided to look elsewhere.

After a week and a half got a return call from the cemetery stating they hadn’t noticed the engraving wasn’t done. Um, right. Of course, no proof of payment in the file. Re-paid as it wasn’t worth the time to look for the canceled check from years ago. Will be following up next month when we swing by that cemetery after a lecture I’ll be giving nearby.

Then it was an hour and a half drive to Fair Cemetery in St. Joseph County, Indiana to visit the graves of my husband’s maternal great-grandparents, George Frederick and Margaret “Maggie” Long Harbaugh. A half mile from the cemetery we hit a dead end. The road was closed. No detour. We were in the middle of the country with fields on each side of us. The car and phone GPS wouldn’t reroute us. So close, yet so far!

We decided to go to the next cemetery on our list, Porter Rea. We thought the GPS might start working for an alternative to Fair if we were approaching from a different direction.

When planning, look up the cemetery address online but I want to warn you that it is not exact and often wildly wrong. GPS coordinates would be wonderful but often they are missing in these remote locations.

Porter Rea is now a part of Potato Creek State Park so you have to go through the ranger gate to access it. The Rangers gave us great directions and the signage to find it was wonderful. They also had a nice paved parking lot, a water pump (that needs priming), and this cemetery was beautifully maintained. The stones you see at the top were repaired sometime in the past. They are in remarkably good shape, likely because they face west so most of the algae gets burned off in the summer sun and the north wind doesn’t blow snow on the stones, further preventing their deterioration.

We found the stones in seconds as the former trustee told me to find the pump, look for the white mausoleum, and walk 100 feet back. How he could remember is beyond me as he has given the records to the new trustee. Wish all cemeteries had someone like him.

I had read in the diary of Mary Ann Eyster Johnson that she had planted a white rose bush on Betsy’s grave in the 1880s as that was Betsy’s favorite flower. Find A Grave photo showed no flowers so I brought a white Snow Drop rose to plant. Actually, hubby planted it and we decided it was best to put it between the two stones to make the mowing easy for maintenance.

Mary Ann Johnson was a friend of Betsy and related distantly to her through marriage. Mary Ann’s sister, Sarah had married George Henry Harbaugh. One of their sons, George Frederick, married one of Betsy’s daughters, Maggie Long. Maggie was buried at Fair Cemetery, the one we had been unsuccessful in reaching.

GPS gave us an alternative route so we were now backtracking from my original plan. The distance was about 10 minutes. On our way, we passed a beautiful old white church and I told my husband to stop. Yep, it was St. John’s Lutheran and that was where George Frederick and Sara Eyster Harbaugh were buried. We found their graves quickly as the cemetery is small. It needed a mowing but we had heavy rains at the end of the week and that likely messed up the lawn schedule. The stones were clean so after a short visit we were following GPS to Fair Cemetery.

The car told us we had arrived at our destination but there was no cemetery; it was a field across the street from the Pine Creek Church of the Brethren which the family had attended. Interestingly, the address was the only location of the family’s 1880s farmhouse which is long gone.

No one was at the church so we drove down the road and luckily, found two women in the front yard of their farmhouse. One said she’d ask her husband because she knew of no cemetery close by. A few minutes later she returned to our car with her adult son who offered to drive us to the cemetery, a short drive (2 roads) away. We hated to bother them but she insisted saying he needed to drop items off at his uncle’s house who lived the way we were going.

He kindly got us there; honestly, we would have never found Fair Cemetery without their help. This cemetery was also well maintained and we found the graves quickly. We also found many other graves of both my husband and my family. Our families have followed the same pioneer trails in many places over the past 1000 years so I guess that’s not surprising.

We were quite tired by this time but I had one more cemetery to visit in South Bend as I had promised a distant family member I would check on his grandmother’s grave.

Once again, GPS routed us to the wrong cemetery but it was easy to find where we needed to go as it was across the street, Highland Cemetery. We had the section and found it quickly but the sections were HUGE and without a map, we were not successful in finding the grave. The storm had left down trees and knocked over stones. The ground was soggy and uneven. My husband went to the middle of the section and I started at the road walking in circles as graves went in every direction. I knew what the stone looked like from Find A Grave but so many stones were of the same shape and color, we gave up after an hour when it began to thunder.

What we did discover was this historical marker:

How cool is that?! We don’t often think about the folks who once walked about the ground where are relatives are now interred. The Native Americans and LaSalle, sitting under the now-dead tree, I could picture.

As summer comes to an end, we plan a few more cemetery stops. Next time, I’ll be prepared with shears!

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