Category Archives: Historic preservation

If stones could talk….

The old Monroe County courthouse prior to its demolition.

During my 11-year tenure as “Homes” columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times, I learned many fascinating things. For instance, oral history in Elm Heights says that the three houses on the southwest corner of Fess and University were built using architectural salvage from the original Monroe County courthouse. (That courthouse, constructed in the 1820s, was demolished in 1905 to make room for the current limestone structure.)

In this case, oral history is probably correct. One of those three houses has a basement ceiling supported by hand-hewn timbers with adze marks, an architectural element common in the early 1800s but highly unusual a century later. In the house next door, a massive, non-standard and obviously ancient paneled door was cut down to fit a low basement doorway. And renovations at that second home uncovered piles of soft smoke-smudged antique bricks serving as fill around the foundation.

I think I have identified an additional element of the old courthouse not far from Dunn Meadow: reused limestone foundation blocks which nowadays serve as a humble retaining wall.

This wall is at the northeast corner of 7th and Dunn.

The entire north side of Seventh between Dunn and Indiana is edged with stone retaining walls. Most of them appear to be roughly pecked into shape using a hammer and chisel. We know from commissioners’ records that when Jack Ketcham built the original courthouse he used stone and lumber from his own property south of Bloomington. The construction took years longer than he had promised, to the great annoyance of the county commissioners of the time. But consider how long it would have taken to shape countless limestone foundation blocks in the absence of industrial milling machinery! When you consider that the bricks were handmade as well, it’s a wonder that Ketcham finished the building at all.

The contrast between early 1800s and 1900s shaped stone.
The contrast between early 1800s and early 1900s shaped stone.

Look how rough, large and heavy these old stones are. 20th-century milled stone was always neatly shaped and the pieces were smaller, to ease the task of stacking them. But even roughly shaped stone was too valuable a commodity to simply throw out when a building was demolished. The reason I believe that these stones came from the old courthouse is because the houses in that block date to the correct time: 1905 and immediately after, according to the Monroe County Interim Report. And there’s so much of the recycled pecked stone that it must have come from a sizable building.


It’s always a surprise to look at something that I’ve passed countless times and see it with new eyes. I had never thought twice about this block of retaining walls until recently, but the angle of the sun at this time of year made the rough texture of the stones much more visible.

This stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to be repurposed.
This incised stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to have been repurposed.

Do you know anything about these retaining walls, or about the three houses at the corner of Fess and University? Are there any other buildings in Bloomington allegedly built using salvage from the old Courthouse? If you have any anecdotes, please let me know.

(To learn more about the various incarnations of the Monroe County courthouse through time, see my old blogsite.)

Mount Carmel cemetery


Located in northwestern Monroe County, Mount Carmel cemetery is well worth a visit. It contains several outstanding carved limestone monuments, including one shaped like a locomotive engine, complete with engine number. The cemetery also contains the largest native cedar trees I have ever seen in Indiana, one of them easily a yard in diameter at the base.

Surrounded by woodland, the cemetery is shaded and peaceful.
Surrounded by woodland, the cemetery is shaded and peaceful.

The locomotive gravestone was erected to the memory of young Emory Titzel, a Monon Railroad worker who died aged 22 in 1902 due to a rail accident. “His Last Trip” is engraved on the base of the monument.


The gravestone is also notable because there is a glass walled compartment beneath the locomotive. The sun shines blearily through the heavily streaked plate-glass windows. The viewer assumes that this compartment originally held a bouquet or everlasting wreath, but over the last century whatever was originally contained inside has crumbled away to a handful or two of black compost.



There is also an outstanding “tree stone” monument shaped like a craggy tree with ivy climbing up it. On one branch is carved a stonecarver’s maul, as if it had been placed there casually while the worker rested for lunch, and on another branch rests a hammer head (the handle presumably having broken off over the years). Information gathered by the Monroe County History Center states that the stone honors William Willard, a Welsh-born stonecutter.


The huge cedar trees are outstanding. I hazard the guess that they were planted when the headstones at their bases were set in place, because over the past century-plus they have become so massive that their trunks are now pushing the headstones over. The stones cannot be easily read but are simple rectangles, which leads me to guess that they date to the 1870s or ’80s. If this is true, the trees are 130 or 140 years old.

IMG_5103The cemetery is arranged on all sides of what appears to be a deep sinkhole, and the ground is sloping and uneven. The thing that is most memorable (and dare I say it, creepy) about Mount Carmel is that many of the graves have fallen in as their contents have rotted away. Several graves are so hollow that last fall’s brown leaves are pooled at the bottoms. A whole series of graves that were originally surrounded by limestone sills have fallen in so significantly that the sills have sprawled out of line and are now broken.


One monument (a child’s, perhaps?) resembles a sinking ship. Even the locomotive monument is falling forward into the grave beneath. Sighting along a line of monuments shows just how far these heavy stones have settled out of the perpendicular. Half the stones at Mount Carmel remind the viewer of the leaning tower of Pisa.


And yet, despite the sunken graves and the tilting gravestones, Mount Carmel is intimate, beautiful, and surprising. It’s one of the historic gems of Monroe County and will afford you a pleasant drive in the country while getting there. From Highway 46, take Stinesville Road north. When the road begins to descend the long hill towards the little town, turn left at the quarry, which will be Mount Carmel Road. Stay to the left at the Y. The cemetery is not far, past two right-angle corners in the road, on the right. There’s a gravel pull-off long enough for one or two cars.

The stone urn at the top of the monument is covered by a stone shroud.
The stone urn at the top of the monument is covered by a stone shroud.
The lichen on the stone resembles gray mosaic.
The lichen on the stone resembles gray mosaic.

Beauty in quiet stone

I have always loved cemeteries, which to me are places of beauty and rest. Many people do not realize that impressive works of the stonecarver’s craft can be found during the course of a relaxing stroll.

This monument was shaped like a bank in honor of the family surname.
This monument was shaped in honor of the family surname.

Stone grave markers are an art form capable of generating a visual, even spiritual, impact, like the one below, which symbolizes the collapse of all our earthly constructs. (The back of this same marker shows the gates of heaven opening to admit the deceased.)

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Bloomington’s three large cemeteries are Rose Hill, White Oak and Valhalla, but there are many other smaller ones that include Covenanter, Dunn (on the Indiana University campus) and Ketcham, to name just a few.

This stone tree has a stone dove perched on a limb.
This stone tree has a stone dove perched on a limb.

Different styles of stone markers were popular at different times throughout history. The earliest and simplest gravestones are simple slabs, but those who could afford it had many choices. The stone tree motif was very popular during the second half of the 1800s. Often adorned with stone ivy and stone ferns, the lopped-off branches of the tree are often commonly believed to represent the number of family members who had already died, but the broken branches probably indicate a simple general theme of decline and death.

An outstanding tree with ferns and ivy carved upon it.
An outstanding tree with ferns and ivy carved upon it.

Rose Hill cemetery contains a monument to the only Bloomington citizen lost on the Titanic: a wealthy young man who was returning from a trip to Europe. The tomb, of course, is empty.

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People might be surprised to learn that in the earliest days of settlement, gravestones were almost unknown. There was no quarrying machinery on the frontier in settlement times (1780-1820) and stone had to be laboriously cut and shaped with hammer and chisel. Most graves in the early years were simply marked by a plank with the name of the deceased painted on it.

One of the oldest stones in Rose Hill, from 1833. A small number of early stones were cut from Hindostan whetstone, and traveled 50 miles from their source to reach Bloomington.

The marker above is NOT limestone but whetstone from Hindostan, Indiana, a hard, crisp stone which has beautifully maintained its cut and shape. Limestone became the usual default grave marker material simply because it’s so ubiquitous in Monroe County, but many old markers were also carved of white marble. These date to after 1853 (the first year the railroad reached Monroe County). Before that date it would have been extremely difficult to haul heavy blank marble gravestones by wagon all the way from the Ohio River to Bloomington.

Paris Dunning, former governor of Indiana, had the means to import fancy white marble for his wife. Note the hand pointing heavenward.
Paris Dunning, former governor of Indiana, had the means to import fancy white marble for his wife. Note the hand pointing heavenward.

Marble has the unfortunate tendency to erode under our increasingly acidic rains; limestone does not usually erode but tends to breed lichens and moss. Granite, however, is far harder, lichen-free and long-lasting. Currently, colored and etched surfaces are an eye-catching option for purchasers.

"Somewhere, over the rainbow..."
“Somewhere, over the rainbow…” A lovely stone.

Bloomington’s Rose Hill cemetery has many distinguished residents, including Hoagy Carmichael, composer of many popular American hits such as “Heart and Soul,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust” and “Skylark.”

Hoagy's marker is usually covered with coins placed by fans, usually inserted into the incised lettering.

Hoagy’s marker is usually covered with coins, usually inserted into the incised lettering.

Another pair of famous residents are the renowned sex researchers, Alfred and Clara Kinsey.

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The greatest production of the stonecarvers’ art is the monument to the Riddle brothers, who both died during World War I. Their family commissioned a stone soldier carved with painstaking detail and erected it in the cemetery just north of Lake Lemon.

The doughboy is approximately four feet tall.
The doughboy stands less than five feet tall but is perfectly detailed.

Unfortunately, this priceless piece of carving has been vandalized, like so many other grave markers.

Two chunks of the soldier's hat brim have been lopped off by blows.
Two chunks of the soldier’s hat brim have been lopped off by blows.

It’s hard to fathom what kind of person gets a thrill from smashing beautiful markers in quiet cemeteries, but there it is: a pure act of contempt for other people’s loved ones, and contempt for these masterly works in stone that have been left undefended.

The next time you’re near a cemetery, go in and wander around. You’ll enjoy a relaxing and serene stroll across smooth grass to the sound of birdcalls.  Each one is a special place worthy of our admiration.

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