MERRILLVILLE | Stories of Civil War heroism, a double murder, the region’s earliest settlers and the mystery of unmarked graves are part of the small, grassy roadside cemetery on old Lincoln Highway.
Merrillville Cemetery has its fair share of stories, and possibly no one knows them better than Alice Smedstad, a member of the Merrillville/Ross Township Historical Society.
“I grew up next to the cemetery,” Smedstad said. “Well, I basically grew up in it because I didn’t have a playground when I was a kid. I’m also related to half the people buried there, one way or another.”
When she was a young girl, Smedstad would collect flowers and ribbons after funerals and recalls accidentally getting stuck in a dug grave when she was 4 years old. She still has the record book of her great-great-grandfather Alva Saxton, who was the cemetery caretaker in the early 1900s.
As she led a cemetery tour Sunday afternoon, she introduced historical society members to her relatives of centuries past, soldiers and town founders. She said the earliest recorded graves are from the 1830s.
“My mother used to tell me stories about the people buried there, I wish I could still remember them all,” Smedstad said.
Years later after moving back into the area, Smedstad brought those stories back.
Her work began when she and her brother donated land to the cemetery and Ross Township Trustee John Rooda suggested the plot be made into a war memorial.
“No one really knew how many veterans and soldiers were buried there,” Smedstad said. “Like a lot of little old cemeteries you see, there aren’t a lot of records.”
She spent two years, beginning in 2005, searching through obituaries preserved in microfilm to complete a book recording the 53 soldiers buried in Merrillville Cemetery. Approaching the memorial statue, she said her father, James Flora Sr., a World War II vet, would have been proud to see what has become of what was once his prized garden.
Her search for the stories of those buried in Merrillville Cemetery continues today, as she works to learn more about the 500 to 600 people buried there. Sometimes that means uncovering dark family history.
“My mother never told me about this one,” Smedstad said as she came to the grave of Robert Mummery, her great-great-great grandfather, who died at age 103 in 1890.
In 1860, Mummery gunned down his son and son-in-law with a double-barrel shot pistol over a land dispute. Mummery was convicted and sent to prison in Southern Indiana, however he was acquitted for reasons Smedstad doesn’t know. Mummery and the two men killed are buried feet away from each other, and the Mummery farm still stands near Interstate 65.
Many figures in the cemetery made their mark on history, such as Dudley Merrill, the namesake of Merrillville. Caroline Muzzall was an English settler who came to the town in the 1830s, and was known as Merrillville’s midwife.
A tall stone tree trunk with carved bark and vines signified the burial place of John W. Johns, 1845-87, one of the area’s earliest physicians. Milton Pierce, a WWI veteran, died from tuberculosis in 1924 from transporting sick soldiers from Europe to America.
James Adams served in the Patriot War in 1837. Sent by Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason and Gen. Hugh Brady, he made it from Detroit to Chicago in a horse-drawn sleigh in 28 hours to request more troops.
“That was unheard of at the time,” Smedstad said.
While many of the colorful lives of the buried have been discovered again, some remain a mystery. In the cemetery’s northeast corner lies a Potter’s field, a site of unmarked graves. Smedstad said most likely this is where unidentified bodies along the nearby Native American trade route Sauk Trail were buried.
Betty Jane Spanier, of Crown Point, visited relatives' graves during the tour.
“There’s not too many cemeteries like these left now days,” Spanier said. “A lot of times they aren’t taken care of, and the towns don’t want to pay to take care of them, so they fall into disrepair.”
Smedstad will continue her project in chronicling those buried at Merrillville Cemetery, and plans to publish a book telling their stories.