Plaque at Pilgrims Rest now honors residents long gone from this world

Jo (left) and Bob Ramsdell stand with the bronze plaque they erected at Pilgrims Rest Cemetery. The plaque memorializes 20 of Bob’s ancestors who are buried in unknown locations, many at Pilgrims Rest.
Jo (left) and Bob Ramsdell stand with the bronze plaque they erected at Pilgrims Rest Cemetery. The plaque memorializes 20 of Bob’s ancestors who are buried in unknown locations, many at Pilgrims Rest. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published June 9, 2016.

A bronze plaque tucked near the treeline at Pilgrims Rest Cemetery north of Huntington bears the names of nearly two dozen people, all of whom left this earth a century or more ago.

Their names — Hitzfeld, Behr, Jung, Schmiedes, Wuersten — bear out their roots in Germany; their final resting place is evidence of their lives in Huntington.

Once buried in the Old German Lutheran Cemetery on Dimond Street, they were disinterred and moved in the late 1890s after city fathers decreed that all cemeteries be moved outside city limits. Their headstones apparently didn’t make the move; then, a fire in the 1930s destroyed the records of burials at the new plot north of town, now known as Pilgrims Rest.

“A lot of these people wouldn’t have a mark anywhere that they even existed if we didn’t put this up,” says Bob Ramsdell.

Ramsdell counts those people among his ancestors, and he and his wife, Jo Ramsdell, have spent the past 15 months tracking them down. Early in June, they erected the bronze plaque listing the names of 20 members of the Hitzfeld/Hitzfield family, along with the dates and places where they were born and died and an inscription along the bottom — “May They Never Be Forgotten.”

The Ramsdells live in the village of Vicksburg, MI, about 100 miles straight north of Huntington, but Bob’s roots, on his mother’s side of the family, are in the Hanover area in north central Germany.

Bob had already traced the genealogy of his father’s family back to the Mayflower, and Jo had a pretty complete family history researched by other members of their family. So the couple, both retired, started looking for the Hitzfelds.

“When we started this about 15 months ago, we had just a few pages on Bob’s grandfather,” Jo says. “Now we have 12 binders.”

To accumulate those 12 binders full of information, the Ramsdells’ travels included six or eight trips to Huntington, where they discovered Joan Keefer and Julie Theobald, the backbone of the Indiana Room at the Huntington City-Township Public Library.

“They’re a wealth of information,” Jo says. “We’d hit a dead end, and she’d put us on trails we never would have found.”

The binders hold not only a basic family tree, but also photographs of Bob’s ancestors, stories about their lives and pictures of their homes and businesses in Huntington. The Ramsdells left duplicate notebooks, as well as CDs containing the same information, at the library’s Indiana Room for others to use.

“It’s just something we do,” Jo says.

“We find old pictures, we clean them up,” Bob adds. “This is an ongoing addiction.”

“We just don’t want people to be forgotten,” Jo says.

The family, Bob says, came to Huntington around 1852 from Fort Wayne and had also lived in Mahon and Roanoke. They left Schwarme, located south of Bremen in Germany, for a lot of reasons, Bob says. Many people were migrating at the time following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, subsequent political turmoil, religious persecution and financial downturns.

Some of the older members of the family, who had left Germany between 1837 and 1844, lived and died in Fort Wayne, and there are no records of where they were buried. Those four family members are memorialized on the plaque at Pilgrims Rest, as well as the 16 people who were moved from the Old German Lutheran Cemetery to Pilgrims Rest. The locations of all the graves are unknown.

C.H. Louis Hitzfeld, whose last name was also spelled Hitzfield, was born in Hanover, Germany in 1813. After making his home in Huntington, he was he owner of the town’s Flint Springs hotel — later known as Cottage Inn — located along the Little River at the end of Cherry Street.

“It’s kind of fun to walk backwards in your family tree,” Bob says.

Bob says many members of the family worked in paper mills and followed jobs to Kalamazoo, MI, where he was born and raised. They would have taken a train from Huntington to Fort Wayne and on to Kalamazoo.

“My mother’s father, my grandfather, lived in Huntington,” Bob says. “He was born here.”

He still has distant cousins in Huntington, he notes.

The Ramsdells don’t limit their historical research to family. Their current hometown in Vicksburg, MI, has only about 3,000 residents, too small to support a museum or a library, so Bob and Jo have taken it upon themselves to document the community’s history, using a local café as their home base.

“People bring stuff in and we scan it — pictures, documents, newspapers,” Bob says. “We leave the binders at the café for people to look at.”

Bob became literate with computers and cameras while working for Pharmacia & Upjohn for 31 years, and Jo, a retired teacher, uses her writing skills as they put together the binders of historical treasures.

And the hunt continues.

“We’re never really done,” Bob says. “We’re always looking for more pictures. We’re looking for more people.”