By Brian Boyce
Mecca — The stories of old warriors, farmers and children were polished and set Saturday afternoon, as their intertwined descendants gathered at Hixon Cemetery to sustain a legacy.
“It’s one of these things that everyone agrees needs to be done but someone has to do it,” Mike Lewman said with dirt on his knees and shovel in hand.
Nestled into the trees along Hixon Road, just off of Parke County Road 275S, the cemetery’s land was donated as such in 1853 by William Hixon, Lewman’s great-great-grandfather.
And after retiring from Cummins Engine in Columbus, the area native returned back home and found the cemetery in disrepair.
Considering many of the 700 individuals buried there are family, including 69 veterans of wars ranging from the American Revolution to Korea, Lewman and members of his extended family initiated a board of trustees and not-for-profit corporation dedicated to restoring the grave markers and property.
“It’s like genealogy. You’re either into it or not,” he said, noting the group launched with a workshop involving Roachdale art teacher Jessica Felix and other professionals from Ivy Tech who taught them how to restore the aged stones and reset them without damaging them.
And since that June workshop, the team has participated in “save a stone days” once a month this September, October, November and plan to host one in December before breaking for winter.
Lewman’s maternal family includes the Hixons, Puntenneys and Cooks, making Andrea Ellis Kelley, 27, a distant cousin.
“This is our first time,” she said, noting she is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Aquilla Puntenney, a farmer and veteran of the War of 1812 who was granted his land there in 1813 by President Andrew Jackson’s administration.
Aquilla, who’s name is alternately spelled “Aquilla” and “Aquila” on different stones, died Dec. 15, 1878 at the age of “85 years, nine months and 12 days,” according to his grave’s marker, which marked age in similar terms to other stones of its era.
Aquilla marker is straddled by those of two wives, Eleanor and Eliza, both of whom died at 29 years of age.
“Probably from childbirth,” noted Marka Presslor, 79, another cousin who has been helping with the project. “We’re usually the only ones here,” she said, pointing to members of her extended family.
Presslor, who taught elementary school in the Rockville area for 37 years, noted the number of younger women who died in childbirth throughout the cemetery.
And sometimes the children weren’t far behind.
“He was two years old and five months,” Kelley said, pointing to one of three small tombstones lined in a row, where siblings were buried next to one another after dying within months of each other. “Something must have come through and taken them out,” the Evansville-area physical therapist said.
“It’s hard to imagine what this area looked like in 1813,” Lewman said, looking around the acres filled with trees visibly younger than a 100 years in age. “It was virgin forest,” he said, adding that any woods cleared were done by hand.
“I think William [Hixon] came from Ohio,” he said, adding the Puntenneys came from Maryland, but that back in the early 1800s everyone was coming from somewhere and the area was as rugged as it was pure.
The Hixon Cemetery is a “Pioneer Cemetery” as well as a “Historic Cemetery” listed in Indiana’s Cemetery and Burial Grounds Registry of Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources.
Through grants from area foundations and groups, the board has established an “adopt a veteran’s grave” program in an attempt to find and mark all graves belonging to veterans from the Revolution through the 20th century.
Over the years, many of the cemetery’s records have been lost or destroyed, despite burials as recent as last month. Lewman said one of the group’s goals is to establish a data base with each of the graves found and recorded by number.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Presslor said.
Brian Boyce can be reached at (812) 231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.