Trying to keep a family's legacy
Work endures for aging caretakers at Parker Cemetery
Nancy Bell was just 6 years old when she started working at Parker Cemetery. She would run across the street from her grandparents' farm to the privately owned graveyard at St. Joe Center and St. Joe roads to pick up sticks or mow the grass. There was a big wind, gotta go pick up sticks, Bell recalls her Grandmother Parker saying. It was always work, the 76-year-old Bell says. And it still is. While her grandparents' farm is long gone and the land developed - the once-dirt roads paved and widened - there is still plenty of work to maintain the cemetery, which turned 150 years old in 2016. There is grass to cut, fences to mend, signs to be painted and headstones to be fixed with much of it done by a small group of 10 or so volunteers who are devoted to ensuring that Parker Cemetery remains family operated.
Always on call
The Bells live at the end of a quiet street in northeast Fort Wayne. The yard is neatly landscaped and a motor home sits in the driveway, awaiting the couple's next adventure. In December, Nancy and her husband, Max, were making plans to travel to Texas to attend a grandson's graduation and celebrate the holidays. But as the days ticked down, the work mounted. Not only were there the normal trip preparations, but Nancy Bell also needed to gather all of the documents for Parker Cemetery. "We have to take everything with us," Bell says. "Because if somebody dies while we're gone, I have to tell them where they can be buried if they don't own a lot. "And so, I'm on email and phone with the maps. If they got family there, I'm trying to get them close to their family." Nancy Bell is the secretary /treasurer for the Parker Cemetery Association and has been for 10 years or so - a start date isn't something she cites. In fact, she was given the position when the previous secretary/treasurer quit and her brother told her that she was taking over. "And I said, 'Oh, crumb." She sends out the quarterly financial statements to board members, sends out reports and writes the minutes from the group's annual meeting in November. But she also removes flowers that family members have put in vases near the headstones at the end of fall and answers questions for people who want to purchase a plot or see a particular gravesite. At a small unmanned kiosk inside the cemetery, there are maps with names of those buried and a phone number - Bell's. If visitors want to see a particular gravesite and can't find it on the winding paths in St. Joseph Township, they can call her and she'll drive there and direct them to a loved one's final resting place. It happens quite a bit, Bell says.
Hallien kneels next to the grave of his great-grandfather a veteran of the Civil War
There are about 800 people buried in Parker Cemetery, Bell says, and room for about 200 more.
The first burial was in 1863, but the land didn't become a cemetery until 1866. The land was donated in the mid-1800s by Peter and Elizabeth Parker. There was a chapel on the property and a school, too, although those are since gone. Inside the wrought iron fence are members of the Parker family, St. Joseph Township residents and veterans of every war since the Civil War. Mike Hallien's great-grandfather is one of them. Born in 1838 and having died in 1920, John Hallien was a private in the 74th Regiment, Indiana Infantry, Company C. There are also Hallien's four uncles buried at Parker Cemetery, three or whom served during World War II. His uncle Ted, he says, had to stay home on the farm on St. Joe Center Road and help the family with the animals. "I knew all of them, and there were four' burials down there," he says. "I was born in 1947, but they were all alive when I was younger."
Hallien calls himself a hands-on kind of guy. Currently vice president of the Parker Cemetery Association and past president, the volunteer firefighter can be found doing what needs to be done - whether it's picking up leaves, trimming trees or participating in an impromptu work session. But it was Hallien's other work, his career of 42 years, that has possibly challenged him most when it came to the care of the cemetery. As a state highway engineer, the last 18 years spent as a bridge engineer, Hallien understood when the city wanted to widen St. Joe Center Road. He also understood that it was best for the road to go straight. But there was a problem the cemetery was in the way, he says. "I said to myself, 'Oh,that's going to mean building graves,''' he says. "That was a real hard thing to do." In the spring of 2004, more than 80 graves were moved as part of the 15-year, $7 million road-widening project. The project, which was completed by the Concordia Cemetery Association, cost the city of Fort Wayne $640,000. Though the Parker Cemetery Association had initially opposed the reburials, the project might have been just what it needed. The sale of the land netted the association a significant sum of money. The principal has been invested, and the interest is used to' cover expenses such as mowing, snow removal when there is a funeral and paying the Concordia Cemetery Association to help with burials. With the age of the cemetery, there are also headstones that need to be replaced and others power-washed. However, Bell is cautious with the money. The return on investment has decreased over the years. At one time, the association would earn more than $3,000 in interest; last year, it was less than half. The association does receive donations from members, about $1,000 a year, and the sale of one to two plots a year also helps. "If we ran out of money, we would have to dissolve the Parker Cemetery Association, and the township would have to take care of it as best she could," Hallien says.
At 69, Hallien is one of the youngest - if not the youngest - board members for the Parker Cemetery Association. The fact isn't lost on him or on Bell, with both saying it is imperative for the cemetery to find new people who are interested in the site and its history. "We're being realistic about this thing," Hallien says. "Younger people are probably not excited about serving on a cemetery board. We're trying to reach out to some of the grandchildren of some of us and see if there's a son or daughter or grandchild who might be interested." If the association cannot find new blood to serve on the board and volunteer with upkeep, the township might have to take over the cemetery - even if the money is there. "Cemeteries are in the mandate for the St. Joseph Township trustees to take care of," Hallien says. "It wouldn't just go up in weeds. But they probably couldn't maintain it as well as we do with our volunteer organization and the money that we do. "We don't want that to happen - ever. At least, not in our lifetime." And so for now, Hallien and the Bell's are among a small but mighty group who are doing what they can. "My relatives are buried there," Nancy Bell says. "Somebody has to do it."