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August 6, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Searching for Beulah Jane

Part II: The quest for a forgotten grave

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s Mike Lunsford column is the second in a two-part story on his search to solve a family mystery. Part 1 was published in Monday’s Tribune-Star. Both are available at www.tribstar.com.

The cicadas were singing in typical Hoosier summer refrains as my daughter, Ellen, and I stood waist-deep in the sweaty itch of a Putnam County cemetery’s orchard grass and sumac. We were searching for the grave of my grandfather’s first wife, Beulah Jane Lunsford, who died in 1926.

We had already had a long day when we found that tiny burial ground two weeks ago. With little more than the name “Fertic” and the faint recollections of a trip my brother took with my grandfather decades ago, the two of us were trying to get some closure to a quest that had started that morning in the quiet of the Clay County Clerk’s office. We wanted to carve a small notch in our family’s genealogical tree and along the way discover as much as we could about this girl who died at 18 and remains with us only through a single, faded photograph.

We arrived at the cemetery in a roundabout way. A dozen fruitless Internet searches and blank GPS screens behind us, we were awaiting a call from the Putnam County Health Office as to a possible location.

Rather than sit still, we were using some of John’s misty memories as coordinates of sorts, so I turned south off U.S. 40 in the quiet little burg of Manhattan. I had visited my grandfather’s sister, Alice Allen, and her husband, Everett, there many times, going to their farm on John Grey Road to camp and fish on Deer Creek. The roads, no longer bearing the names of people or geographics, were now numbered and impersonal. Yet, we found the Allen place, then drove on across Interstate 70, all the while rubbernecking for even a glimpse of a churchyard or family graveyard. Miles later, already frustrated from dead ends, roundabouts and a maze of 425s and 1100s, we arrived back in Manhattan somewhat hopeless. Our long-awaited return call confirmed that there was no Fertic Cemetery in the county, but that it was possible that not all of the county’s graveyards had even been mapped and marked. It was also possible that Beulah didn’t even have a headstone.

We found hope at Krambo’s Kustom Kolors, a busy motorcycle shop in Manhattan, its sliver of white rock serving as a temporary home base. Beth Broadstreet, who covers the counter at the shop, must have taken pity on me as I warily eyed the chops of the rather large bulldog that watched me when I walked through the door. She immediately tried to help by taking me across the street to a man often called the “Mayor of Manhattan”; the mayor was out. Beth then called Gerald “Mac” McClure, a retired county highway employee, who sent us southward into the country again, where, eventually, and in agreement with my brother’s memories, we found a covered bridge, a long, winding hill and a cemetery located not far behind a small, white house. We thought we had found Beulah, too, but we hadn’t.

The graveyard we searched was actually Matkins Cemetery. We got to it by wandering down a lane to the home of Joe Fox, just in time to catch him and his wife near their barn, moving horses from one pasture to another. Joe said he knew there was a cemetery on the back of his property, told us we could park in his yard, then volunteered to take us through a few gates into the woods. As we waited near a small concrete bridge that spanned a mushy ditch, we spotted Joe’s work cap bobbing through the weeds as he poked around for a way to the graves. Forty-five minutes later, leery that we’d caught poison ivy, and scratching a few fresh mosquito bites, we were back in Joe’s yard, he on the phone to his father, then his grandmother, then a good friend. We soon had directions south, then east, to Salem Cemetery. Despite some speculation that Beulah may have been buried with the Allens (that cemetery had an Allen plot), we came up empty-handed again.

Using the GPS, we now headed north, thinking that perhaps the covered bridge we had found on a map near the Boone-Hutcheson Cemetery, on the other side of Manhattan, was the marker John had in his head. We found the graveyard easily enough; it was perched high upon a steep hill, the view of the bridge and the cornfields below through the neatly trimmed headstones a beautiful one. Ten minutes after leaving that graveyard, which holds Moses Boone, son of the famous Squire Boone Jr. and nephew of the famous pioneer Daniel Boone, we literally stumbled upon the Manhattan Cemetery, unmarked on our map. We walked it stone by stone for most of an hour; there were Allens buried there, too, but no Lunsfords. Nearly 9 o’clock by then, a bit shy of patience and light, we decided to head home.

A break came later that night. Restless and unwilling to go to bed, I found the cemetery listed on a website. Working on the premise that perhaps the name had been misspelled in 1926, I discovered a “Ferdig” Cemetery in northern Owen County, a stone’s throw from where we had been wandering. Beulah’s death certificate confirmed that she had been born in Owen County. Within minutes, I had the coordinates and driving instructions, so the next day I called my brother and daughter, and we made plans to take another drive.  

My wife joined us for the trip across curving Indiana 42 toward Poland.  Convinced that I had accurate directions to literally drive to the cemetery gates, we headed north out of town on County Road 850E only to discover that there was no cemetery nearby. Several dry runs up field roads and long driveways got us nowhere, and once again I relied on the kindness of strangers, this time coming in the form of Doug and Beverly Rolison. I had hoped we hadn’t interrupted the Rolisons’ supper when I pulled into their drive. Eager to help us, they first explained that we weren’t even in Owen County, we were in Clay, although both told me that I was within a quarter of a mile of where I could stand in any or all of three counties.

Doug said he knew of one graveyard nearby; he’d hunted near the property. So, he and Beverly jumped into their car and led us to it, or rather a place where, if I wanted to wield a machete and wear a pith helmet, I could have gone. Doug said he didn’t think the graveyard had been mowed for 40 years.

By the time we left the Rolisons in a cloud of road dust, Ellen had the GPS locked onto the coordinates I had written down. It took us just 20 more minutes, and Ferdig Cemetery appeared around the bend in a gravel road — Ferdig Road — and we knew then that we could find Beulah.  

She was buried near her parents, two infant brothers and a sister. Her father, Curtis, had outlived everyone in his family by nearly 40 years. Nancy, his wife, had died in 1918 — the year Spanish Influenza killed a half-million Americans — when she was 35 and Beulah was just 11. Two of their children, the first born in 1909 and unnamed, the other born in 1913 and named Robert E., lived just two days. Another grave, that for Elsie, 1919-1921, goes unexplained, unless Curtis remarried.

In the wooded peace of that place, we could hear only the sweet calls of an Eastern Phoebe that sat on a wild grapevine near the cemetery fence. Beulah’s gray granite gravestone marked an end to our search, and it is doubtful that we’ll ever know any more about her. We stayed a while, recalling stories about my grandfather and wandering among the markers for familiar names. We went home north through Manhattan and Brazil, my grandfather’s old haunts.

As we drove, I asked my brother about a brittle newspaper clipping I had found among photos at my mother’s; my great-grandmother Clara must have kept it. It described a fistfight that my grandfather had been in while working on a road construction job south of Greencastle. Apparently, Grandpa Roy, who couldn’t have been out of his teens, took the worst of the fight, but both he and his opponent were fired from their jobs by the crew boss. According to the article, my grandfather’s “older brother,” James, who also worked on the job, then tracked down the other boy and gave him a “sound thrashing.” Both he and my grandfather were fined.

We never knew my grandfather had a brother named James. Ellen piped in that there was a brother named Lee, too. We thought we had met all of Grandpa Roy’s brothers and sisters, besides Hazel, who died very young, and Albert, who died in the war. Neither James nor Lee had ever been mentioned. Who were they? Where were they?

The search goes on …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by visiting his website at www.mike lunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.

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