October is the month for stories of ghosts, hauntings and, of course, graveyards. The neighborhoods around Geist Reservoir may be too new to have ghosts, but they actually have graveyards. One overlooks the reservoir itself. They’re survivors from a time before the area was called Geist, and some of their headstones commemorate lives that began not just before Indiana became a state but before the US became a republic.
You’ve probably seen one or two of these old cemeteries as you’ve driven to and from work or hurried about on errands. There’s Hopewell Cemetery, for example, along a quiet stretch of Sargent Road, and Klepfer Cemetery near the hairpin turn in Fox Road. You may have first noticed them because they recently acquired white fences, signage and a manicured look. Those improvements are part of an ongoing restoration project started by Lawrence Township Trustee Russell L. Brown whose name appears on each cemetery’s sign. It isn’t there to show who has taken credit for the improvements, says Deputy Trustee Jason Tomcsi, but to show who has assumed responsibility for properties long overlooked.
Though Indiana law makes township trustees responsible for orphan cemeteries, those left by forgotten farming communities and defunct churches, not all trustees take that responsibility seriously. The result can be graveyards swallowed up by woodlands and desecrated by vandals. In 2010, Trustee Brown decided that Lawrence Township would do more than simply maintain a list of deteriorating properties. He instituted a restoration project that is still a work in progress.
The process has four basic steps. The first step is to survey the old graveyards. The second is to give each property fencing and signage. The cemetery names on the signs come from different sources. Some are the names handed down in local tradition, such as Salem, the name of the cemetery near the intersection of Mud Creek Road and Fall Creek Road not far from Geist’s dam. If no such name is known, the burial plots are christened after the family whose members dominate the ground.
After fencing comes brush and tree clearing as well as grass seeding. This work is done by Jeff Balak and his company, Primal Lawn and Landscape. Balak has been involved since the beginning of the restoration effort, since the days when, in his words, the plots were “overgrown fields and a few headstones.”
The fourth and final step (and the most time consuming) is the righting and restoration of the stones. This is the responsibility of Brad Manzenberger’s company, Stone Revival. In addition to restoring vandalized and settled headstones, Manzenberger places small limestone markers on unmarked graves, so depressions in the earth, currently the only indication that such a grave exists, can be leveled and seeded.
So far, all 14 of Lawrence Township’s trustee cemeteries have been surveyed. Now 13 have fences and signs, have been cleared and seeded and are being mown regularly. The stone restoration effort is still ongoing. Salem Cemetery is the latest to have that step completed.
Tomcsi says the homeowners whose properties border the cemeteries were wary of the restorations at first, but feedback on the completed efforts has been positive. The initial concern comes from fear that raising the visibility of these cemeteries may increase vandalism. Tomcsi hopes that vandals will be “deterred by the fact that someone is obviously now looking after these properties.” He points out that neighbors now have someone to call if a tree limb falls or any other damage occurs, itself a major improvement. Balak confirms that he has acted as liaison with homeowners, often walking the properties with them prior to any renovations to determine “what works best for all parties.”
Sometimes in the past, it was a neighbor who actually mowed a cemetery’s grass or picked up trash. One of the neighbors of Silvey Cemetery saw to it that a Civil War veteran had a new flag on his grave every year.
Silvey has perhaps the most beautiful setting of any of Geist’s orphan graveyards. It’s on a wooded hill on the edge of the Fort Benjamin Harrison property, overlooking a valley near the intersection of Fall Creek Road and Sargent Road. Silvey contains the grave of a Lawrence Township settler older than our country’s Constitution. He’s John Newkirk, born in 1784 and died in Indiana 80 years later. Newkirk was already 15 years old when George Washington died. Yes, that George Washington.
Silvey may have the best setting, but the prize for priciest property may go to Bills Cemetery with a lake view. It overlooks the reservoir from a cul-de-sac in Admirals Bay on Geist’s eastern shore. According to local tradition, Bills was rediscovered by workmen who were laying out the roads for the development.
One group that has needed no persuading regarding the restoration effort are the descendants of the settler families buried in the rescued cemeteries. Not surprisingly, some still live in Lawrence Township. Others come from far away in search of genealogical information, guided by the list of graves on the Lawrence Township Trustee website. Evidence of family visits can be found here and there, like the flowers near a recently leveled stone in Salem Cemetery. That stone belongs to Samuel and Sarah Morgan, and it’s one of the newer ones in Salem, newer being a relative term. It was set in place in 1906.
For Tomcsi, the rule of thumb is a simple one: “If these graves belonged to your family, how would you like them to be kept?” Answering this question should require no great leap of imagination for any Geist resident because, in a sense, the settlers buried in these cemeteries are our ancestors. They’re earlier owners of the land which the Geist community now occupies. When the restoration effort is finished, the old cemeteries will again be a visible part of that community.