Preserving Our Cemeteries
story and photos by Jeff Tryon
Peaceful Valley Heritage and Preservation has been focusing efforts on some of the endangered parts of Brown County’s rich historical heritage—its dozens of small pioneer cemeteries.
That effort is also shedding some historical light on the artists of Brown County. Henry Cross, a farmer and carver of tombstones, was probably the county’s first resident artist.
“One big thing we’re trying to work on is the Henry Cross tombstones,” said Vivian Wolff of Peaceful Valley Heritage and Preservation. “We are literally trying to save them—getting them up and out of the dirt and trying to preserve them. And we want to educate people.”
Cross, an early settler in Van Buren Township in southern Brown County, carved the iconic “Stone Head” marker at the intersection of State Road 135 South and Bellsville Pike, which depicts a man’s head on a rectangular block with directions and mileage carved below to direct visitors. It was one of three such markers Cross made in lieu of road maintenance work.
“He also carved tombstones, and they were beautiful,” said Wolff.
Peaceful Valley Heritage has pledged $1,000 in seed money to work towards the repair and restoration of the Cross stones located in Van Buren township area cemeteries.
“His stones are in the dirt, some are broken some are standing up,” Wolff said. “A few of them have the face sloughed off from weather and the quality of the stone. You can imagine very intricate work all done by hand—a little girl, a little lamb. There are some that are symbolic, like a tree stump signifying a life cut short, and weeping willows. He did a lot of those.
“I think as far as heritage goes, if we don’t do something to save these cemeteries that are 150 to 170 years old, do some research and know the stories that go with them, we are really missing the boat.”
How many cemeteries are there in Brown County? Wolff admits she has “no idea.”
Hamblen Township alone has around 30 cemeteries, and some of them are very small, like the six-grave Richardson Cemetery where one of Brown County’s earliest judges is buried.
With so many cemeteries, many in neglect and disrepair, Peaceful Valley Heritage first picked the Sprunica church and cemetery as a project because it is close to the road and gets a lot of traffic from nearby Sprunica Elementary school.
There was once a small but thriving community where only the church and cemetery remain. For many years the county fair was held there.
“There was a whole little community there, the one room church, a one room schoolhouse, the cemetery, a store, and a Redman’s lodge. The church is still standing and the cemetery surrounds it. It’s over 150 years old,” she said. “There’s a lot of heritage there.”
Many volunteers including employees of Indiana Oxygen and South Central Indiana REMC, Sherriff Scott Southerland and his family, and surviving ancestors of people buried there, such as Max Scrougham and his son Bruce, have spent hours removing fallen limbs and trees, mowing, pruning, and straightening tombstones. The township trustee is finding funds to help clean and repair stones.
“We have tried to assess all of the cemeteries in Brown County, but we haven’t gotten to all of them yet,” Wolff said. “There’s a committee in the county that is trying to bring the cemetery information up to date and correct some of the information.”
The group is working to bring up to date the work of legendary Brown County genealogists Ken and Helen Reeves.
“The Reeves’ work on cemeteries was extensive and there is a cemetery book, but nothing has been done to bring the book up to date,” she said. “The desire is to preserve some of the stories and some of the history and heritage of Brown County.”
Peaceful Valley Heritage helped support the restoration of the Old Log Jail and is trying to get other projects off the ground, including preservation of the Dickey and Neff houses and the historical marker for the State Park. The recently acquired state historical marker for the Brown County Bluegrass Music in Bean Blossom is a result of their efforts.
The cemetery committee meets once a month on the third Thursday of the month at one o’clock at the public library in Nashville.
At a special public meeting scheduled for August, an Indiana Department of Natural Resources archeologist will talk about who is responsible for what in old cemeteries, what can and cannot be done. Wolff is hoping more people who are interested in old Brown County cemeteries will get involved in many different ways.
“Because I’ve tried to get some of this work done, people think, ‘Oh, you have a passion for cemeteries!’ but I don’t. I just think there’s some heritage there and I do think we ought to save as much as we can,” said Wolff.
A booklet In search of Henry Cross by W. Douglas Hartley and a DVD with the late Jack Weddle talking about the Henry Cross stones are available at the Brown County Public Library.