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The History of Memorial Park

Located behind the Armory, just across Washington Street, is Indiana County’s smallest park, which also serves as a cemetery. Even though it is our County’s smallest park, it is full of history.

The earliest story of the park and the area surrounding it relates to what is today known as Washington Street. This street served as the Armstrong Trail, named for Lt. Col. John Armstrong who marched along this path with his army of 307 men on his way to the Native American village of Kittanning in 1756.

Ownership of this tract of land dates back to Thomas and John Penn, original owners known as the “Proprietors.” This 267 ¼ acres was called “Colforgie” and was surveyed for them on May 5, 1774, and sold a year later on May 6, 1775 to Reverend John Smith of Bart Township, Lancaster County.

Smith held the property for almost 19 years before selling it on April 1, 1794 to John Conrad Rice, a blacksmith and Revolutionary War veteran who served in the 8th Company, 6th Battalion, Lancaster County militia.

In the spring of 1795, the Rice family settled in the area in the southeastern part of Indiana, including much of Mack Park and the lands on both sides of South Sixth Street from Washington Street south.

The park itself served as the first cemetery in Indiana, starting long before the town was laid out. The early settlers attended church services near this plot of land, at least during the good weather, opting to use Conrad Rice’s barn in bad weather.

Some of Indiana’s early significant figures are buried in the cemetery. Jonathan French, the first doctor, died August 20, 1814, and his wife Jane died in 1818 were both buried here. Dr. French came here from Vermont and married Jane, who was the daughter of Charles Campbell.

Conrad Rice died in 1823 and was buried in the cemetery, but the exact location is unknown and lost to history.

Daniel Stanard is also buried here, who was Indiana’s first resident attorney. Attorney Stanard also came here from Vermont. His wife Mary McAnulty is buried beside him.

Another burial is that of John Lydick and his wife Mary. John was a colonist and soldier during the Revolutionary War.

A.T. Moorhead shared in a series of articles in 1899 regarding the Underground Railroad that “the Indiana station was amongst the tombstones in the ‘old graveyard’ near the residence of the late Judge Clark.” He recalled three freedom seekers coming to Indiana in April 1845, those three individuals were Charlie Brown, Anthony Hollingsworth, and Jared Harris.

By that time the graveyard was overgrown with brush. The Indiana Weekly Register reported on August 10, 1853 that it had a “wild appearance and dilapidated conditions,” being covered with elder bushes and briars and “the fence by which it is enclosed is fast decaying and falling down.”

An Indiana Borough ordinance was passed on October 6, 1875, prohibiting further interments in the public graveyard of Indiana. A comment appeared in the Indiana Progress on November 8, 1877 relating that the graveyard had become “a town common for the pasturage of cows.” A number of graves were moved to Oakland and Greenwood cemeteries, while other tombstones and markers had fallen over or been broken. Due to these conditions the graveyard became known locally as Skeleton Park.

A new era for the cemetery came in September 1923, when Indiana Borough Council passed a resolution granting the Mothers of Democracy permission to erect a soldiers’ memorial. The American Legion was requested to help in the erection of such a memorial. Alexander M. Stewart (father of Jimmy Stewart), Steele Ober, A.F. Blessing, Samuel Wolf, Harry Campbell, Edgar Walker, George K. Clark, and Richard W. Watson, were chosen to serve on the committee from the Legion.

The Legion raised nearly $2,000. The Farmers Bank donated a granite shaft 26 feet high and 11 feet in diameter, which was formerly located at the bank’s entrance. Vernon Taylor donated a life-size statue of a doughboy.

The project seemed to be moving along without any issues, but that soon changed. Stewart chose the cemetery to place the monument, this ground still being owned by the Lutheran Church. The church had other plans for the ground. As Jimmy Stewart recalled, this didn’t stop Alex Stewart, and he and some of his employees from the store dug the hole, mixed the concrete and prepared to place the pillar. Just as the pillar was to be raised, a group of the Lutherans marched in reading him a court order they had obtained, which prohibited the erection of a tall pillar as a “threat to life and limb.”

The Lutherans left, but Mr. Stewart was still not defeated; he ordered the pillar up. The concrete hardened around the base, and by then it seemed too much work and too unpatriotic to tear it down.

Now there is another story about how the erection of the doughboy statue unfolded. To raise money for the project, it was suggested that trees located on the cemetery could be sold for lumber and then sell the land. However, this idea was opposed by the veterans who had just returned from World War I, feeling the cemetery should be preserved.

Alex Stewart was the leader of the opposition, choosing instead to erect the monument in the cemetery. Mr. Stewart planned the monument and obtained donations from town including the Farmers Bank pillar and the doughboy statue. Veterans soon joined with Mr. Stewart providing support.

However, the Lutherans opposed this idea. As the other story goes, this did not stop Stewart and his group, and they began by digging a hole for the foundation. That night, a group of men from the Lutheran Church filled the hole back in with dirt. The following day, Stewart and his group of men dug the hole back out. And once more, the Lutheran group filled it back in. Finally the cemetery foundation was able to be poured.

But the Lutheran group did not back down from their stand. They placed a barbed-wire fence around the monument and attached a no-trespassing sign to the foundation.

This only made the veteran group more determined. So Alex Stewart called a number of Lutherans down to the cemetery. When everyone was assembled, he pulled a pair of wire cutters from his pocket, cut the wire, tore down the sign and said, “All right, you’ve seen me, so arrest me! So the Lutherans took the case to court, and before everything was settled Stewart and his group spent a few nights in jail.

Mr. Stewart persisted, holding his position, and at last the Lutherans were forced to give their consent due to the overwhelming support from the community.

Regardless of the stories, the statue was erected and dedicated on May 30, 1925.

The Mothers of Democracy had a bandstand erected in the park in 1957. The plaque reads, “Donated by the Mothers of Democracy in honor of their men and women who served for the defense of our country. Erected July 1957.”

Today Memorial Park serves as a place of reflection and recreation. The next time you visit Memorial Park, be sure to think about its history and the stories that it holds.

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