BLOOMINGTON — Dan Combs leaned over his lacquered brown cane and reconstructed in his mind the Mount Salem Cemetery he dared only view from afar as a 12-year-old hunting squirrels.
His memory jogs back almost 50 years, when he had a shotgun in-hand. Broken-off tops of headstones are part of complete, uncracked slabs of stone and memorialize Bloomington's earliest settlers.
The cemetery, surrounded by thick woods, was a "spooky" place, a location old men talked about, saying, "Oh, everyone knows about that cemetery."
"But nobody bothered to write any of it down," Bob Dodd, a volunteer with the Monroe County Historical Society, said.
Lou Malcomb, the society's cemetery chair, searched for Mount Salem Cemetery with old maps, which put the quarter-acre plot to the west of Old Ind. 37. Malcomb didn't have much luck. She walked as the maps directed — and back — wondering if these 19th century graves had vanished with time.
But then, Malcomb chatted with Combs, the trustee for Perry Township, a younger "old man" who remembered a place he used to hunt for squirrels off the west side of "Old" Old Ind. 37, known as the Bloomington to Bedford Pike of the 1800s, to the east of Old 37. Behind the trees was the cemetery he had seen on "Red Hog Hill."
Combs led Malcomb and Dodd to the site, which, despite the movement of Ind. 37 over the years, has been untouched by time, though somewhat broken by the hands of hooligans. A prominent headpiece at the cemetery's center tilts away from a tree on its left but faces toward the old, old highway, reminding the viewer how far back in time they have traveled.
"consort of George Anderson"
"born March 22, 1782"
"died Sept. 22, 1815"
At the base of the tree sits its remainder, a thumbnail of wet stone with a jagged edge, which Dodd and Combs agree must have been brought up from Orange County along the old pike: "In loving memory of Katherine Anderson".
A trove of memories reside in this cemetery. Now, it is Combs' mission to reclaim them.
"We are quickly losing that knowledge in our society," Combs said. "If you asked most young people today who their great-grandparents are, they probably wouldn't know."
For Combs, a longtime Democrat, his first battle was political but refreshingly civilized. One-tenth of the cemetery's grounds sits on the line between Perry and Clear Creek Townships — and part of it was owned by staunch Republicans, Bill Brown and Bud Bernitt.
Without argument, Bernitt and Brown returned the land, previously an industrial subdivision, back to the cemetery. After signing pages and pages of paperwork, Combs was able to get that one-tenth of an acre from Clear Creek, too.
Patching up the actual cemetery will take more time. Pieces of stone are being puzzled through, reattached with epoxy and stood up straight out of the ground. Outside the bent wires of the original fence, another large fence will be erected to keep out vandals.
Inside the gates, surveyors have discovered proof of a time-capsule via ground-penetrating. Under brown, sunken bowls of grass could be mass graves from an Italian day laborer camp, which supplied cheap labor to the quarries nearby in the 1910s.
Deaths were frequent in 1918, Combs said, when the flu ravaged Bloomington. One hundred years earlier, when settlers first arrived, the infant mortality rate in Indiana of 150 deaths per 1,000 births was equivalent to that of modern-day Afghanistan. It was customary that children wouldn't be named until their first or second birthday.
A group of graves surrounds a large "Sylvester" family headstone. Four of them are for children: Lobie (1875-1884), Anna (1873-1875) and two labeled "Infant" (1880 and 1887).
Combs' wife, Pat, noticed an American flag next to a shattered, turned-over headstone, potentially marking the man as a war veteran. She scrubbed dirt out of the crevasses between the dates and revealed the year of death to be 1861.
William Fox, who was 20 when he died, could have been swapping bayonets for the Union during the Civil War. If he died in Virginia, where most of the battles were being waged at the time, Combs said he would have been shipped back, at his family's expense, in a barrel of vinegar.
Rumor also has it a Revolutionary War veteran is buried at Mount Salem. It's one of those details the old men of Bloomington might say, "Sure, everybody knew that," Combs jokes. But standing in the cemetery, for him, is truly a rediscovery of that history.
"The older I get, the more mortal I become. I have decided I don't want to be buried. I really don't," Combs said. "But there are so many stories here. It's just fascinating."