Pair continuing work of fixing up Jackson Twp. cemeteries

Library staff members Diane Miller (left) and Amber Hudson pore over the books that Marsha Martin has contributed to the Huntington City-Township Public Library’s Indiana Room on Monday, July 11. Martin has written 12 books on the cemeteries in Huntington County that are available in the Indiana Room.
Library staff members Diane Miller (left) and Amber Hudson pore over the books that Marsha Martin has contributed to the Huntington City-Township Public Library’s Indiana Room on Monday, July 11. Martin has written 12 books on the cemeteries in Huntington County that are available in the Indiana Room. Photo by Ehren Wynder.

Originally published July 14, 2016.

Two influential Jackson Township women are working to keep their area’s history alive by ensuring the deceased are remembered.

Prior to the work of Jackson Township Trustee Sheila Hines, many of the township’s cemeteries have fallen into disarray because of time and vandalism. Her work is not only helping return them to pristine condition, but is also helping history buff Marsha Martin with preserving the history and genealogy of the area.

Hines, who has been a trustee for 10 years, has helped restore burials that go as far back as 1850. Per Indiana Code, she is required to reset monuments, level and seed the ground, construct fences and remove any detrimental plants growth.

If a stone is missing from a burial plot, the first measure is to probe the ground to see if it’s buried. Hines says that, over time, especially in cemeteries with lots of trees, the decomposition from fallen leaves will raise the soil level and bury old monuments.

“You grid it off 10-by-10, and the way you would do that is you spray paint on the grass,” she says. “And then you take tile probes, and you probe the ground to try to find the missing tombstones.”

This method takes a lot of work, especially in larger cemeteries when the ground is dry. Hines notes that several individuals and organizations have stepped up to help volunteer with the restoration process. The Roanoke Lions Club volunteers their time to help keep Roanoke Cemetery in shape. When a storm felled some trees in the cemetery, the Lions came in to help remove the debris.

“It’s nice to have people that will go in and take care of that stuff,” Hines says, “they feel like it’s their cemetery, and it is. Their taxes are helping to maintain it, but it’s nice that people feel that way. I couldn’t keep them looking as nice as they do without that kind of help.”

While most of the damage to cemeteries is natural, Hines adds that some of the stones she’s had to restore were likely pushed over by vandals from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now, she says people are more respectful of the old gravesites.

“We have not had any vandalism, that I’m aware of, since I became a trustee,” she says. “They’re cared for a little bit more. I think people are becoming aware of it.”

Besides restoring monuments, Hines also does some genealogy work. Her discoveries have helped her uncover unmarked graves through family connections.

“This was out at Wesley Chapel,” she says. “There’s a World War I veteran and his parents. There was a relative that knew there were two babies buried between those graves.”

The relative of the veteran told Hines that the family didn’t have enough money to mark the spots where the two children had been buried.

Hines talked to the board of trustees and shared her discovery. Hines used donated funds to purchase new tombstones from a company in Fremont, OH.

“I can’t not mark those babies graves,” she says. “Because if I don’t mark them, no one will, because [the relative] is in her 80s.”

Hines manages a page for the Roanoke Cemetery on Facebook, where she uploads pictures of the restored monuments. She has also recorded the monuments for Shank Cemetery in a book and worked with Martin on a book she had done for Wesley Chapel Cemetery.

“I asked [Martin] if she’d do that for me because she does a lot of cemeteries, a lot of genealogy,” Hines says, “because I was working on Shank, but Wesley is really big. And I know there’s a lot of people buried there that I don’t have tombstones for.”

Martin, a retiree, spends much of her time at the Huntington branch of the Huntington City-Township Public Library in the Indiana Room. She says she has recorded the monuments of almost every cemetery in Huntington County. While Hines, as a trustee, does more of the work in restoring the cemeteries, Martin does more of the genealogical work, trying to find links to her own family history.

“Sheila called me one day,” Martin says. “She asked me if I would be interested in working on digging up the history of the people buried at Wesley Chapel and find everybody I could, because I read all the old newspapers on microfilm.”

Joan Keefer, who runs the Indiana Room, says that they have microfilm of local newspapers published since 1848. She also adds that Martin is one of her regulars, frequently looking for clues to digging up the past.

Keefer started the Indiana Room in 1975, and seven years later, Martin came in and overheard her asking for information on Zion Cemetery in Jackson Township.

Martin, knowing that much of her family was buried in Zion, took it upon herself to go out and read the stones.

“Now she read it kind of crudely,” Keefer says of Martin’s original work. “And now she’s doing a lot of different ones.”

In her first book on Zion, Martin only had photos of the gravesites along with names, birth dates and death dates. But the obituaries archived in the Indiana Room   became valuable in helping Martin uncover the life stories of the people buried. She plans to write another book on Zion with contemporary newspaper clippings detailing the lives of the deceased.

“That was in ‘82,” she says about her first book. “Now I’m working on Zion [again], only it’s not going to look like this. It’s going to be like, I took [the person’s] family, and I’m going to tell you his life and history.”

Martin applies the same investigative research to her work on Wesley Chapel Cemetery, which was a greater challenge for her because a lot of the stones are missing.

“The only reason I did it is because there are a lot of people buried there who don’t have stones, a lot of the stones are unreadable and I love finding out about the northern part of [Jackson] township,” Martin says. “I was able to find a lot of children and who they married and where they were buried.”

Through her research, Martin was able to find more about people than what was written on their monuments. Keefer adds that that knowledge makes them more relatable.

“They become people,” She says. “Not just names on stones, and that’s what [Martin’s] books are about.”

Keefer tells the story of her husband’s grandfather in Andrews who died from an explosion in a basket factory. She says she wouldn’t have known that just from reading his tombstone.

“Some of [the obituaries] really go back in detail,” Keefer says. “Who would have known he was blown up in the basket factory? You would have had to read his obituary.”

The man’s obituary tells that he had a stake driven through his chest, and his ribs and shoulders were crushed. Although he was “cheerful and alert” through the whole ordeal, he died three hours later.

“You read this through any obituary, it shocks you,” Keefer says. “The old ones really go into gory detail.”

Keefer adds that the Board of Health in Huntington County keeps charge of the death certificates, and until recently, could choose not to make them public. Now, the Indiana Room can copy them for their records.

Martin says she’s also learned much more about her own family history by investigating the gravesites. She says the old obituaries have told her a lot more than she would have known otherwise.

“Both of my great-great grandparents died of typhoid within a few weeks of each other on the farm where I was raised, in the house where I was raised,” she says. “I never knew that until I read their obituaries. I knew they lived there. I knew they helped build the house. It makes your family real. It’s not just, ‘oh that’s my grandmother, blah blah blah.’ It tells me what kind of person she was.”

Martin describes her self as drawn to the “old ways.” She says she grew up without running water, and her family raised their own food. She hopes that she will be able to preserve history for younger generations.

“The reason I do this is because I want future generations to know how they lived. If I don’t tell these stories with these stones now, they’re not going to know.”

Martin regularly cleans and maintains her own family’s gravestones in the interest of preserving her heritage.