News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 24, 2011

Water line project unearths graves from old county home burials

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — More than 45 unmarked graves could lie in the path of a water line project that was halted last week after a  contractor uncovered human bones at the former site of the Vigo County Home.

A historical document in the archives of the Vigo County Public Library lists the names of 49 people who were buried from 1898 to 1903 at what was then called the Vigo County Poor Farm.

It is unclear if all those people are buried in one cemetery location, or if their graves are scattered around the property. But the June 11 discovery of the burial site has prompted some “digging” into the property’s past.

History’s Mystery

“Feed the hungry and clothe the naked is a sacred charge.”

That decree appears on page 581 of the 1891 book, “History of Vigo County.” It begins a one-page accounting of the “poor asylum” where the county’s “unfortunates” received care and comfort despite their poverty.

But no where in that book is there an account of what happened to the people who died while residing in the asylum.

More politely known today as the former Vigo County Home, the rambling buildings that once stood on East Maple Avenue have been demolished and some of the land has been parceled off for various uses.

The records of that facility have been placed in the archives of the Vigo County Public Library. Ledgers containing faded ink detail the admissions and dismissals, and other book-keeping and house-keeping records.

But the long-ago activities on the property, which was also known as the county farm due to the agricultural use of the surrounding acreage to provide income for the facility, have been left mostly to the memory of past staff and residents. Many of those people who might have known about the property’s cemetery history have died in the nearly three decades since the Vigo County Commissioners decided in the 1980s to get out of the public “nursing home” business.

Terry Brentlinger, who served as a county commissioner in the 1980s, said on Friday that he recalls no information about the property ever having a cemetery. And his father, who had also served as commissioner, never mentioned any burials on the land either, Brentlinger said.

X might mark the spot, or not

An undated plat map of the property shows a few Xs marks along the northern border of the property, indicating a cemetery. But that old map, provided by the Vigo County Surveyor’s Office, has no date, no legend and no scale. And, many of the streets platted on that map have never existed, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the cemetery’s location in reference to surrounding landmarks.

The discovery of the human bones has halted the water line project on the northern boundary of the training facility developed by the Terre Haute Fire Department.

“This was an accidental find,” said city councilman Norm Loudermilk, who spearheaded the water line extension project as the training officer for the fire department.

“It’s not marked on any map. We knew there was the possibility of burials, but we figured it was closer to the wood line,” Loudermilk said on Thursday, indicating a wooded area on the northern edge on the property.

Loudermilk said he had seen the old map with the cemetery, but no other records of the cemetery could be found. He found an aerial fly-over map of the property from pre-1970, and it does not indicate a cemetery anywhere on the site.

Standing alongside the water line trench that disturbed the graves, Loudermilk explained that the water line was to be extended about 580 feet east — from the hydrant near the northwest corner of the training facility property to a spot along the south side of the Bemis Co. property to provide additional fire protection for the manufacturing facility. The water line extension could also serve future development in the area.

The training facility is located at the northwest corner of the former Vigo County Home property. In 2006, the Vigo County Commissioners granted 10 acres for the development of the facility, and later added another 10 acres for a law enforcement firing range and training grounds.

An extension of Brown Avenue marks the western boundary of the property, running north from Maple Avenue along a former railroad bed and connecting to an east-west road along the southern side of Bemis Co.

Just how the water line project should proceed — continuing in a straight line, cutting under the roadway, or turning south and trying to find a path around the unmarked cemetery — will be determined by some additional investigation being conducted by an archaeology team and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Experts in the field

Shawn M. Phillips, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana State University, is among those investigating the cemetery to determine the most respectful and appropriate way to handle the remains.

“Right now, I’m guessing we’re at the northwest side of the cemetery,” Phillips said. “We don’t know the boundaries of it.”

That is why Ground Penetrating Radar will be used for non-invasive, sub-surface testing to reveal any undisturbed graves in the area. Phillips has submitted a work plan to the state that has been approved to allow the GPR testing. A proposal now needs to be developed for city officials to sign off on the archaeological study and cemetery preservation.

Phillips, who has 20 years of experience working on such projects as a forensic anthropologist in Indiana and Wisconsin, said it is not uncommon for the modern needs of development to impact buried history, such as unmarked cemeteries.

It is important to handle the site as respectfully as possible, and Phillips said he wants the public to know that the remains in the graves are being treated with dignity. Those that have been disturbed will be relocated to a modern cemetery. Those graves that remain on the old county home site will be marked, and the land should be deeded off separately so that future developers will not disturb the burials.

Phillips said that ISU has a number of anthropology students who have learned the methodology of working in burial sites. Those students will be a volunteer workforce who will gain some hands-on experience, while keeping the project cost low for the city.

“It’s a really rare type of learning opportunity here,” Phillips said of the student participation.

Record search

In the meantime, the question arises of how many unmarked burial sites might exist on that property.

Judy Branam, an ISU student who is also an intern with the state’s Department of Historical Preservation and Archaeology, received the assignment to check into the county home records.

Her search took her both online, and to the public library where Archivist Jim Gilson was able to retrieve several folders and old record books related to the county home.

After three days of searching, Branam made an interesting discovery.

“She said, ‘These pages are stuck together. Do you think you can unstick them,” Gilson said, recalling the discovery of the burial list.

Several pages of an old ledger, separated from an original book, were inside a protective folder. Hand-written on those pages were lists of admissions and discharges from the Poor Farm. There were also lists of people who died at the facility, but those people were buried elsewhere — their bodies claimed by relatives or friends who had the “unfortunates” buried at some cemetery away from the county-owned property.

Those records were easy to read, the pages turning easily.

But Branam said it seemed too coincidental to her that the ledger pages stuck together were a list of people who were actually buried on the Poor Farm property. Had someone long ago tried to hide that burial record?

Jeannie Regan-Dinius, a special projects coordinator for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the DHPA’s Cemetery and Burial Ground Registry project, told the Tribune-Star that the state started requiring records of cemetery burials in 1939. So the recent find of the unmarked cemetery on the county home property was not so unusual.

“Accidental discoveries are common,” Regan-Dinius said, commending the city for stopping the water line project and making the proper notification to the state of the discovery of human remains.

She visited the water line trench the day after the discovery of the bones, and confirmed that evidence on the site shows an unmarked cemetery. Wooden fragments of simple wooden coffins were visible throughout the dirt piled next to the trench. No vaults were used in those burials, and it appears that each grave contained only one body.

Along the sides of the trench, visible changes in the color and texture of the earth indicated the boundaries of eight possible graves.

Back in the archive

The records of the Vigo County Home are contained in one flat storage box, one oversized volume and two document cases. The records date from 1874 to 1982, and include six ledger books, miscellaneous photographs, three admission orders, two newspaper clippings and a letter requesting information about an individual who had been in the home.

Several photographs are dated to 1961, and most contain some handwritten notes on the back, identifying residents or staff members or architectural details of the county home.

Some photos have disturbing images of iron-barred cells where residents lived. One photo included the label “sexual molester” for a man grasping the cell bars. Another photo showed a stooped man walking along with his hand on the cell bars as a guide. That photo identified the lifelong resident as “blind since birth.”

Another large group photo showed male residents, some in wheelchairs, dressed neatly in button-down shirts with slacks and dress shoes.

Archivist Gilson said some of the records might contain information that could be embarrassing to family members today, so the records are treated with care and dignity.

A historical narrative states: “The first poor house in Vigo County was built on 80 acres in 1853 and was charged with caring for the ‘unfortunates’ of the county. By 1865, due in large part to the rapidly growing city of Terre Haute, the house was no longer adequate to care for the poor of the county and the house was sold.”

“In 1866, a new site for the Home, located on what is now Maple Avenue, was purchased and construction on a new building soon follows. The County Home was rebuilt again in 1936 with an expansion in 1976. In 1992, ownership of the Home was transferred to Nationwide Management Inc. of Indianapolis when the Vigo County Council voted to sell the Home.”

A copy of a newspaper clipping from the Wabash Courier, printed March 2, 1839, gave notice that a “poor house” was in operation for the county, but did not identify the location of the house.

The 1891 local history book, which covered the years 1810 to 1890, outlined the cost for construction of the facilities and the land as it outlined the responsibility of caring for those in need.

“The unfortunates are always with us,” that history states, “in trembling old age and in the weak wail of the famishing babes, victims so often of men’s unholy greed. There was a time when Vigo had not a pauper in it, but the growth of population brought the prize of this perpetual crop at quite an early day.”

Questions linger

While the archive records do reveal that some burials occurred on the county-owned property for that five-year span of 1898 to 1903, Branam said Thursday afternoon that she had found no other on-site burial list. So the question remained, were other residents also buried without documentation on the property? What happened to those folks who, without family to claim their bodies, died after 1903 and prior to the facility’s closing as a county-owned home?

With the property located in Harrison Township, any pauper burials would become the financial responsibility of the township trustee.

Current-day trustee Debbie Kirk said on Friday that she worked as a staff member in the trustee’s office in the 1970s and 1980s, but she could not remember ever having a pauper burial that came from the county home.

One former employee of the nursing home that operated in the former county home building before it was demolished wrote to a reporter that when she worked there as a young woman, she remembered hearing that there were unmarked burials all over the county home property.

Without a large-scale examination of the entire property, it may never be known if other grave sites are located on the grounds of the former Poor House. But at least the graves disturbed as a result of the water line project will be marked for future preservation.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or