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Ask the Truth: What is the oldest cemetery in Elkhart?

For this week’s edition of Ask the Truth, readers wanted to know about Elkhart’s oldest cemetery. Here’s what we found out. 


Posted on July 19, 2014 at 7:49 a.m.

The oldest cemetery in Elkhart doesn't exist anymore — at least not above ground. 

The old Middlebury Street Cemetery, established around 1834, was located on the corner of Middlebury and Prairie streets.

ASK THE TRUTH

In this week’s edition of Ask the Truth, the community voted for our reporters to answer the reader-submitted question, “What is the oldest cemetery in Elkhart, and who was the first person buried there?”

If you’d like to send your own question to Ask the Truth, write it down in the blue box at the bottom of the story labeled, “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?”

Bodies buried there, though, were moved to Grace Lawn Cemetery in 1895 so the Middlebury Street School could be built, according to Elkhart County Genealogical Society records. 

The school’s still there, but it’s empty, shuttered and for sale.

Local cemetery historian Pat Johnson believes human remains are still there too, under the school’s parking lot and around the edges of the property.

She says it’s likely that city officials back in the 1800s only transported some of the graves to Grace Lawn. 

"At that time, it was believed they took them all,” she said. “Since then there’s been indication that not all graves were moved and maybe it was just the ones that were under where the school was being built.”

Most of the graves that did get moved were moved en masse and haphazardly, with little regard for keeping the correct head stone with the correct body.

Upcoming project will be monitored

Part of the upcoming construction of a railroad overpass along Prairie Street will include improvements at the intersection of Prairie and Middlebury Street, where the city’s oldest cemetery once sat.

With that in mind, an archaeologist will be on site when construction involves the northwest corner of the street in case evidence of any bodies is found, said city engineer Mike Machlan.

Machlan cast the chances of crews discovering any evidence as minimal because construction will not involve a significant portion of the northwest corner.

But Pat Johnson points to a 1900 article reporting four skeletons were found during a construction project at the corner. That’s enough to suggest there could be more bodies, she said.

Construction on that intersection is not expected to commence until 2015.

"The stones do not match where the location of the graves are at,” Johnson said.

Those stones are still at Grace Lawn in the back east corner of the cemetery.

Many of them are so weathered that names and dates can’t be made out. Some are broken.

Other graves, those of prominent and wealthy families, were moved with much more care. 

Perhaps the most notable person buried in the old cemetery and later moved to Grace Lawn was Havilah Beardsley, the founder of Elkhart. 

Beardsley died in 1856 and was later buried in the Rufus Beardsley family plot, according to the Elkhart County Genealogical Society.

There’s no record of the first person buried at the old Middlebury Street Cemetery, but the oldest inscription and head stone found there reads: “In memory of Catharine Keeler, consort of J.W. Keeler, who departed this life August 27, 1836, aged 27 years.”

J.W. Keeler was a blacksmith in Elkhart, according to Elkhart County Genealogical Society records. 

His second wife, Rebecca Keeler, also died young — when she was 26 years old in 1845.

Learning the stories of Elkhart residents buried nearly 200 years ago is a thrill for Johnson.

“The history here is the history of Elkhart,” she said. “That’s why I love it so.”

 

 

 

 

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks

 


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