Road work may relocate century-old graves
By DEBRA KRAJNAK
Of The News-Sentinel 1989
The city wants to move about 40 graves within a Civil War-era cemetery so it can widen a section of St. Joe Center Road. The city is trying to buy a 15- to 20- foot-wide strip of land in the Parker Cemetery at the southeast corner of St. Joe and St. Joe Center roads, said Carl O'Neal, director of the Department of Transportation Engineering. The acquisition is necessary if the city is to widen St. Joe Center from St. Joe to Maplecrest roads.
However, the efforts are too late to benefit the St. Joe Road widening project, which should be completed late next week. The Cemetery property prevented Allen County from widening the eastbound stretch of St. Joe Center Road next to the cemetery from one to two lanes as part of the intersection improvements, said Bill Jones, county highway director. "The consultants a few years ago ... did talk to someone involved with the cemetery, but the people weren't interested," Jones said yesterday.
By the time they did become interested, "the project was too far along," he said. O'Neal said he has been working for more than a year with Dick Dodge, president of the cemetery's association of lot owners, to locate survivors of people buried in about 40 plots. They have succeeded in locating nearly all of them, O'Neal said. .
He said a letter to be signed by him and Mayor Paul Helmke will be mailed to survivors shortly explaining the city's desire to buy the land and relocate the graves within the cemetery. All of the survivors and the cemetery association would have to agree for the deal to be completed. he said. "We wanted them (the county) to get their project out of the way" before proceeding, O'Neal said. Dodge has estimated it would cost about 360,000 for the city to buy the right-of-way and relocate the plots. Because federal agencies never want to become involved in purchases of properties such as cemeteries, the city would have to use local money for t he portion of the widening project from St. Joe Road to Becker Drive, O'Neal said.
Dodge said he has talked to some members of the Parker family, many of whose relatives are buried in the cemetery, and "they'd have no problems with it." Dodge said the association is interested in selling the land to raise money to start a cemetery maintenance fund. He began contacting heirs of people buried there about 1 1/2 years ago as part of the fundraising effort. "The cemetery is now maintained mostly by volunteers," he said.
At one point, Dodge said, lot owners considered donating the cemetery to a church in an effort to keep it maintained. He contacted O'Neal in the spring of 1989 after hearing that the city might be interested in acquiring the property, Dodge said. Dodge sent O'Neal a list of grave sites and other information. .
The cemetery was established in 1866 by Peter Parker whose name appears on a wooden cemetery sign along with a notation for the adjacent Parker School, which existed between 1860 and 1936. The cemetery belonged to the woodframe Parker Chapel, built in 1863 on the site where an Amoco station now sits, said the Rev. Curt Sylvester, pastor of St. Joseph United Methodist Church at St. Joseph Center and Reed roads.
A brick structure later replaced the wood church, and it went through several name changes, he said. One of the original chapel's founders - Christian Parker owned a sawmill on land that is now the Fort Wayne State Development Center Sylvester said. Johnny Appleseed, who was buried in Fort Wayne, was a member of the religious congregation that met informally in the area before the chapel was built, the pastor said. "When the church moved, it was decided to turn the cemetery over to the lot owners," Sylvester said.
The congregation moved about 32 years ago to the site of Sylvester's church. The chapel was later torn down to make way for the gas station, he said. The cemetery is now wedged between Jiffy Lube on the southwest and Casual Cartage Self-Storage to the east. Some of its headstones have marked so much time they are unreadable.
CEMETERY: Moving graves will soon reach a peaceful end along St. Joe Center Rd.
When the price of progress includes moving 82 graves to widen a road, the cost is measured in more than dollars and cents. "We knew the cost was not . only monetary," said David Ross, Fort Wayne city engineer. Descendants of people buried in Parker Cemetery, at the southeast corner of St. Joe and St. Joe Center roads, initially resisted Fort Wayne's offer to relocate graves to widen St. Joe Center. The city could have acquired the property through condemnation, but instead chose to work with the cemetery association. ''Nobody wins in a case like that," said George Parker, president of the Parker Cemetery board of directors. Now, 15 years after the city first made the proposal, work is about to begin. Eighty-two graves along the north edge of Parker Cemetery will be moved this summer to prepare for next year's road widening. While neither city nor cemetery officials are particularly happy with what they're having to do, both said cooperation among all has made a difficult situation easier. Parker said while some people are still opposed to the project, most have faced reality. And the deal isn't all bad. "This is probably the best thing that could happen to this cemetery." A quieter resting place Land behind the cemetery Ross characterized it as formerly, a sort of wasteland" - is being prepared to be the final resting place for relocated graves. The city has committed to keeping entire families intact - for example if only three graves of a family plot would have to moved for the widening, the city will pay for the entire family to be moved together. It surely will be a quieter, more private place for descendents to visit the grave of, say, Jacob C. Utley, who died during the Spanish-American War. And the new location should be an improvement for those paying respects to Alice Mae Parker, who died in 1894, and currently rests about five feet from bustling St. Joe Center Road. Other changes - which the city is paying for - will enhance privacy and aesthetics. An ornamental, steel fence will be installed atop a concrete retaining wall, and a custom archway that will say "Parker Cemetery" will be built at the main entrance to the cemetery. The city has agreed to pay $612,538 all told.
Privacy is paramount:
While ornamental fencing will provide a degree of privacy after relocation is completed, temporary screening will be installed during the weeks the graves are transferred to prevent prying eyes from watching. The highest priority has been given to handling the transfers with sensitivity to descendents and dignity to the deceased. That means keeping the scene shielded from the public. Much of the "groundwork" already has been done. An underground radar detection device was used to determine where the graves are located, Ross said. "(Sonar) is a great thing for us to have," said Don Remenschneider, superintendent of the Concordia Cemetery Association, which has been hired to handle relocations. After sonar detected the vaults or caskets, Concordia personnel walked the property probing with a rod for the exact location. Most of the remains to be transferred are in caskets entombed in vaults, but a few of the old stones are not. Caskets in vaults will be lifted up with an excavator, Remenschneider said. "The majority of the bodies will never be exposed." As for the caskets not in vaults, "Those will be excavated by hand and placed in new vaults, "he said. Remenschneider hopes those caskets still will be intact "to disturb the remains as little as possible." Todd Moravec, a funeral director for Klaehn Fahl & Melton Funeral Homes, will be on hand as graves are transferred as witness for Parker Cemetery - it's required by state law. No graves will be left open overnight. Headstones also will be transferred. New stones will be provided for those who don't have any, and veterans will get a special marker from the Veterans Affairs if they don't already have one.
To funeral directors and cemetery officials, reinterment isn't as rare anymore with society being so mobile, Remenschneider said. Nowadays, when someone moves, it's not unusual for them to disinter and rebury loved ones at the new location. It's a different story when the move isn't voluntary. But George Parker has reached a peace about having some of his relatives' remains disturbed. "My (religious) belief is what keeps it in line," he said. I'm a Christian, and the body is just a shell for the soul."
Were there any alternatives?
The city was well aware of the emotional element associated with the project. But to Ross and others, , there was no alternative. With Washington Center Road/St. Joe Center Road being a major east-west artery on the north side of town, it was inevitable it would have to be widened at some point, Ross said. That was evident 15 years ago, and has only become more clear with continuing growth northeast. "Traffic is almost deadlocked at that intersection," Ross said. The city did explore alternatives to acquiring right of way through the cemetery, such as shifting the road to the north. But that would have resulted in a poor alignment for the road, Ross said.
Presented with the inevitable, the city put Concordia to work. To prepare for the process of notifying descendents and moving graves, Remenschneider researched all 82 of the deceased who were to be moved. "It's a semi-genealogy project," Parker said. "Don's really done an amazing job," said Tina Bell, an attorney for Barrett and McNagny, a law firm that has worked on the project. All the research has been captured in a computer program, paid for by the city, which future genealogists Can use. When the project is done, the Parker board plans to hold a nondenominational rededication of the cemetery, which still has plots for sale. Asked if anybody notable was buried in the cemetery, no one could say for sure. But for sure, those resting in Parker Cemetery at one time all had an impact on someone's life, as a daughter or son, mother or father, sister or brother or friend. So is there anybody really important there? As Moravec was quick to say, "They all are."