News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

July 24, 2011

Water line project unearths graves from old county home burials

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A historical document in the archives of the Vigo County Public Library lists the names of 49 people who were buried from 1898 to 1903 at what was then called the Vigo County Poor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

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