On Sept. 8, the Westchester Township History Museum staff and Duneland Historical Society volunteers will open the gates to the past when they conduct a tour of the Chesterton Cemetery, where many of the city’s pioneer and prominent families are buried.
“The tour this time is different from the one we did five years ago,” says Serena Ard, curator at the Westchester Township History Museum, noting that in the upcoming tour families such as the Dilles, Fridays, Osborns and Weidemans will be highlighted.
“Most of these graves date from the late-1800s, and the families are some of the earliest settlers, business owners, and farmers. Attendees will also learn about the history behind the cemetery and today's efforts to restore and preserve headstones. The tour will encompass eight sites — both family and individual locations.”
The first tour focused settlers including the Coles, Morgans and Thomases. The Morgans, who arrived in 1833 with their seven children, were the second family to put down roots here about 10 years after Joseph Bailly, a French-Canadian fur trader opened a trading post with his wife, Marie, in 1822 in what now is the Indiana Dunes National Park. That family rests in the Bailly Cemetery.
The Morgans built a home on the Detroit–Fort Dearborn (Chicago) Post Road catering not only to stagecoaches but also travelers making their way on horseback and foot. It also housed a post office from 1833 to 1853. The Thomas family came a year after the Morgans, buying a large tract of land from Mau-Me-Nass, a Potawatomi woman.
Building a mill and general store, they are credited with the founding of what was first known as Coffee Creek, the name of a local stream. Coffee Creek became Calumet in 1850 and later changed to Chesterton to prevent confusion with another settlement named Calumet on the same railroad line.
Almost two centuries ago, Chesterton Cemetery started off as a graveyard for the Thomas family, says Ard, which is buried in the southwest section.
“That’s part of the older section,” she says. “The oldest known monument there is of William Thomas Sr., who died in 1838.”
In 1856, the Thomases sold the land east of the old graveyard to A.J. Hayes, who then sold seven acres (what is now the western portion of the cemetery) for $162 to the Calumet Cemetery of Porter County in 1865.
In 1890, Theresa and John Gondring donated the oldest graveyard land to the cemetery. The final addition came in 1904 when Mary Coulter sold the eastern 30 acres to the Chesterton Cemetery Association for $2,500.
“In the beginning it was a private cemetery,” says Ard.
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The name changed from Calumet Cemetery to Chesterton Cemetery in 1890. And the association brought some organization to its operation with John Lundberg, a Chesterton undertaker, serving as its first president.
“He is credited with establishing a more organized layout for lots,” says Ard. Early on, according to Ard, lots were mowed and maintained by owners and family members before the association took over the maintenance for an annual fee.
Starting in 1919, a perpetual care fee was charged for each lot sold. Owners of older lots still had to pay an annual fee. An irrevocable perpetual trust fund was set up in 1975 to guarantee cemetery care after all graves had been sold.
“This tour looks at the cemetery’s history before the 1930s,” says Ard, who as curator maintains and adds to the museum’s extensive archives that include the histories of more than 100 local families plus thousands of artifacts and photographs the museum is digitizing.
This is how she has gotten to know more of the people who rest in the cemetery — and she has her favorites. She mentions Roscoe Dille.
“My very first exhibit that I did when I came to the museum was of local firefighters,” she says. “And Roscoe was one of the first. There are still Dille descendants in town. The Bedell family also has a long history in the area.”
Art and beautiful grounds are also part of the attraction.
“You don’t necessarily need to have a loved one or relative buried at Chesterton Cemetery to enjoy taking the tour,” says Ard. People often visit because of the funeral art, including carved and engraved headstones accented with symbols of the deceased’s life.
“There are various interpretations about what the symbols on the tombstones mean,” says Ard. “A lot of it develops over time, and so what might have meant something in the beginning, could have another meaning now.”
Besides this, tour guides will talk about preservation and restoration of gravesites damaged by vandals.