21Country: Ossian family bringing new life to forgotten cemetery

Historic burial grounds being restored after a century of neglect
Updated: Jun. 28, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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OSSIAN, Ind. (WPTA21) - Off of State Road 1 in Ossian, lies a forgotten cemetery that is now bustling with life. Interrupting over a century of stark quietness, are the sounds of chainsaws and heavy machinery. Less than a year ago, the plot of land off of Young Street was overgrown with brush, and dying trees — that is, until the Heckber family stepped in.

“About ten years ago, I got involved in ancestry, and I found out I had a great-great-grandmother here,” Larry Heckber told us. “I actually didn’t know she existed!” But it wasn’t until he retired, that he finally had the time to explore his family’s history. When he first visited the Old Ossian Cemetery, he was surprised by its deplorable condition.

The cemetery dates back to 1847 — a year after Ossian was founded. Heckber began looking into its lengthy past. “There’s no record that anybody paid to bury anybody here,” he said. “There’s no record that anybody every oversaw it!” Couple poor maintenance with bouts of vandalism, document reveal the cemetery was already in horrible condition by the early 1900′s. So much so, that 84 bodies were moved to the newer, more attractive Oak Lawn Cemetery.

Heckber’s passion project in retirement evolved into a community project: the Historic Old Ossian Cemetery Restoration. But it wasn’t anything he could do alone. He would require the help, of many more Heckbers. “Two of my daughters do grant writing — one of my daughters is good about getting us a site on Facebook and keeping it updated,” he explained. “Three brothers have been helping with the project… I’ve got a number of nephews and great-nephews that have been helping with the project also.” And he’s not short of other volunteers. He’ll soon be working with some Boy Scout troops out of Bluffton — however, due to the dangerous nature of cutting down rotting trees, help has had to be restricted. “So far, we’ve probably got 40 volunteers that have helped on different portions of it, and we’ve put in 500 hours.”

Heckber’s nephew Deke is a lineman, and was the perfect person to recruit to help clear branches and trees from damaging the tombstones even more. “I’ll look down a lot to see what’s underneath me — I don’t want to break anything that’s not already broken!” he told us. Deke Heckber was there with his family, when they made a surprise discovery. “It was really neat last week, when we found our great-great-great-grandmother’s grave — her tombstone.” Though he runs his own business, he carves out time to assist his uncle with the ambitious restoration. “Families important,” he added. “It’s what you do.”

The remarkable transformation has taken place over the last couple weeks. Before the end of the summer, cleaning up the property will be completed. “It’s been forgotten, and it’s time it needs to have attention, and be brought up to the standards of what it should be,” Heckber said. There’s still more in store for next year. The lifelong Wells County resident is planning a big tombstone with the names of all the people buried there. A separate memorial will be erected for thirteen Civil War Veterans there as well.

Heckber has recruited a specialty company out of Nashville, Indiana to restore each and every broken tombstone. The projected cost of that service: nearly $100,000 dollars. They’ve already received a $10,000 donation from a family supportive of their work. If you’d like to help out, you can do so by making a donation to The Wells County Foundation, Inc. website, specifying the Historic Old Ossian Cemetery Restoration project.

Larry Heckber is still compiling information on the people buried there. Below are the names of those he’s confirmed were laid to rest in the Old Ossian Cemetery. If your late relative is on the spreadsheet below, and you have information to share, you can reach out to them via their Facebook page. You can also see photos of progress, and keep up to date as the project progresses.

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