20 Oct Noblesville Cemeteries: Sextons
Noblesville Cemeteries: Sextons
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
As we talk about cemeteries, we often forget to discuss the people who actually work there – namely the sexton. Historically speaking, a sexton was the person who dug the graves and tended to the cemetery. The first sexton that we know of in Noblesville was Jesse Sparks who was appointed to take care of the burying ground (now Riverside Cemetery) in April 1851 during the incorporation of the town. We know almost nothing else about him.
Phillip N. Waltenburg (1825-1899), an emigrant from Germany, was responsible for Riverside and then for Crownland Cemetery from its founding in 1867 to 1898. His obituary recorded that in his career he had buried 3,912 people and reburied 205. He had worked closely with Shelby “Shell” Davis (1850-b.1899) and they had struck a deal saying that the first one who died would be buried by other. Davis died first but, unfortunately, Waltenburg was quite ill and unable to do the work. However, he asked to be taken to Davis’ house for a viewing. Ironically, we don’t know where Davis is buried. In all likelihood, he’s at Riverside beside his wife, Pleasant Davis.
John A. Stern (1862-1948) was the sexton at Crownland from 1902 to 1935 when the position was taken over by Fred L. Cottingham (1883-1963) who at first was called the manager, and later superintendent. Amos Howard (1922-2011) was officially sexton at Riverside from 1965 to 1972 while serving on the board of trustees.
The sexton who seemed to attract the most attention was Isaac M. Scott (1854-1940). He was a lifelong resident of Hamilton County and the son of early settlers James and Mary Scott. His parents, known as “Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Polly” lived to the ages of 93 and 96 respectively and were the parents of 12 children.. Mr. Scott attended No. 7 School in Washington Township and, in 1875, married Lydia Ellen Malcolm. They had ten children. They eventually left the Westfield community and moved to Noblesville.
Scott was known as “Uncle Ike” and was sexton of Noblesville’s Riverside Cemetery for 25 years, until age and poor health forced him to resign. After that, he would occasionally visit Riverside to advise and help the new sexton in his work. Mr. Scott had 351 burials during his 25 years as sexton. Judge Meade Vestal was one of the cemetery trustees during this time and the two men became good friends. At Scott’s funeral in 1940, Judge Vestal said:
“His home near the entrance of Forest Park was literally washed down the river in the great flood of 1913. That flood changed the course of his life as it destroyed the fences, leveled the monuments and covered Riverside Graveyard with debris. The Board of Trustees wisely employed Mr. Scott as sexton and he immediately began the work of restoration. He served faithfully in that capacity for a quarter of a century. He transformed the cemetery into a place of beauty. He loved flowers and, not only planted flowers, shrubs and trees himself, but helped others to do so and was always going about seeking seeds and shrubbery and young trees with which to beautify the place.”
Some of the things said about him were:
“All those years, Uncle Ike was on duty at the cemetery ready to give all information and help that he was called on to do”; “He was a hard worker, upright in all of his dealings and held in high esteem by all who knew him”; and “He was jovial and kindly to all and appreciated the favors granted him”.
On the occasion of Scott’s retirement as sexton, Postmaster Gordon Olvey wrote a poem in appreciation of his long services. (Olvey was known as the “Postmaster Poet” and was later mayor of Noblesville) At the funeral, the Judge read the poem and also an additional stanza which Olvey had written after Scott’s death.
For twenty odd years he has stood on guard,
This friend of yours and mine,
For twenty odd years he has seen them pass,
The first in the long, long line,
And with gentle hands he has shaped the mound,
As our loved ones are laid away,
And we know our dead are safe with him,
Awaiting the Judgement Day.
The Sexton has toiled these many years,
in his garden of flowers and stone,
And never once in a long, long time,
Have our dear ones been alone.
Each flower he greets as a living face,
Each marker, a friend so dear,
As memories come to this friend of ours,
He feels they all are near.
The sexton’s hands are worn with toil,
His step is getting slow,
And frost of age has left it’s mark,
From troubles we all know,
And when the call is made out there,
For him to fall in line,
No truer friend has traveled on,
Than he, your friend and mine.
November 6, 1937
The angel of death has called our friend,
The portals are open wide,
And God has taken him home to rest;
Has called him to His side;
Again we view the long, long line,
As they pass us, one by one,
We bid thee a last farewell, old friend,
Thy work has been well done.
August 4, 1940
– Gordon Olvey Sr.