Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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December 12, 2012

150-year-old pauper’s cemetery commemorated

Peru — Beneath a small, grassy knoll on the outskirts of Peru are the bodies of men, women, children and a Civil War veteran, all of whom were too poor to pay for a burial.

Locals call it the “county farm cemetery,” but it doesn’t look anything like a graveyard. There aren’t any markers, mausoleums or headstones. It’s just an empty lot covered in grass, quietly overlooking the large, 48-room brick house that used to be called the “asylum for the poor.” That’s where the homeless and impoverished in Miami County were sent to live until 1972.

Shirley Griffin, a volunteer researcher at the Miami County Museum who’s investigated the cemetery for the last year, said there’s no doubt the lot located on West 250 South was the site where the county buried the dead from the asylum.

She said she’s talked to numerous area residents who remember wooden markers and gravestones once standing there. The site, however, never was designated a cemetery by the state.

There’s also no doubt that sometime after 1972, all those grave markers, along with the cemetery boundaries, were mysteriously destroyed after the county sold the asylum and its 160 acres of farmland, which included the cemetery.

“I can’t recall talking to anyone who witnessed or remember it being destroyed,” she said.

There’s no question now, however, the knoll still holds the buried bodies of penniless former residents who lived in the building variously referred to as the farm, infirmary, asylum or poorhouse.

Miami County officials last month erected a commemorative monument reading “County Farm Cemetery,” after the owner of the property donated the lot to Washington Township trustees this year.

Asylum residents were first buried on the plot after 1864, when the county built its second poorhouse at 2574 S. Strawtown Pike.

Griffin said documentation indicates at least 42 people were buried in the pauper’s cemetery, but other sources say there were more than 100 residents laid to rest on the lot.

She said at least one was a Civil War veteran, and another may have fought in the War of 1812. A 12-year-old child who died from spinal meningitis was buried there in 1899. Records say the last burial took place in 1939.

But in February 1972, county commissioners decided to sell the asylum and farm after they were informed they must comply with federal wage and hour laws. They said the order made it too costly to continue the home’s operation.

The land sold in 15 minutes during a public auction. Cecil Hahn and his son, Robert, purchased the property for $67,000, including the cemetery.

Then-county attorney James Grund said the cemetery was subject to the right of any relatives who might wish to move the bodies elsewhere.

But what happened next wasn’t only strange, it may indicate how the cemetery was destroyed.

Two months after purchasing the farm, 32-year-old Robert Hahn, a farmer and Peru bar owner, was clearing stumps on his recently purchased property. He was using explosive charges with electric caps he had hooked up to a bulldozer. After the charges exploded, the long wires blasted into the air and tangled in the power lines.

Robert Hahn jerked down the wires, and was electrocuted. He died at 5 p.m. April 29, 1972, according to his obituary published two days later.

Although the obituary didn’t indicate he was clearing the graveyard, Terry Black, a volunteer at the Miami County Museum who helps clean up area cemeteries, said the presence of a bulldozer adds up with his own observations.

He said he recently visited the cemetery and noticed old tree stumps and dead trees. He also observed a solitary tombstone base.

“There’s a bunch of junk and wood, and it looks like it was just bulldozed over,” he said. “The graves would still be there, but the stones are all gone. All I could find was that one little base.”

But Black said how the graves were ultimately destroyed remains conjecture. The truth is still unknown, he said.

Over the next 40 years, the land switched owners a handful of times. For about the last 20 years, Allie Wilson, a 62-year-old farmer, has owned the cemetery and the surrounding farm ground.

He said he hasn’t done much with the plot, except mowing it to keep the grass down. But Wilson said everybody knows it’s a cemetery.

“We’ve always stayed off it or just mowed it once in a while,” he said. “My big concern was just to leave it be.”

So when the Miami County Cemetery Board approached him this year about deeding the property to the county, Wilson said he was all for it. He said the county could maintain the area better than he could.

“It’s very generous of him,” said cemetery board president Jeff Hagan. “We’re glad to have that property back.”

And for museum volunteer Griffin, the fact that the pauper’s cemetery is back in the hands of the county brings some kind of closure to the destruction she called “disturbing.”

“From a research point of view, we’d like to be able to read what’s on every headstone in the county,” she said. “To see any cemetery destroyed is disturbing. ... We need to remember these people that lived, and you do that by putting up a monument. In a small way, it commemorates the lives and deaths of those who were buried in that cemetery.”

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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