Digging Through History: Gary, Indiana’s Tolleston Cemetery

Waldheim (Tolleston) Cemetery

Waldheim (Tolleston) Cemetery

At about 17th Avenue and Grant Street in the Tolleston neighborhood of Gary, Indiana lies a forgotten cemetery. Numerous trees and flowering shrubs obscure the few remaining headstones inscribed in German, English and an occasional Cyrillic script. This is Waldheim Cemetery, sometimes called Tolleston Cemetery after the town– and now neighborhood– where it is located. I’ve passed this place my whole life, but never paid it any mind until I began exploring the town that was here before the Steel City came into existence.

Though the first historical fiction manuscript I wrote took place in Tolleston between 1876 and 1883, my protagonist actually arrives in the area in 1860. I needed evidence people lived here during that time. The cemetery made for easy verification. I’d used this location in a scene where my female protagonist, the sole black person in Tolleston, buries the widow who freed her from slavery. In reality, many Tolleston pioneers are buried there. Unfortunately, most of the headstones have either been destroyed or the inscriptions eroded away. During my visits there, I was able to locate headstones with death dates as early as 1896 and as late as the 1950s.

In the mid-1800s, town founder George Tolle platted the area and set this land aside

The east end of the cemetery with a few headstones in the background

The east end of the cemetery with a few headstones in the background

for a cemetery. St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 10th Avenue and Taft Street maintained Waldheim’s burial records. My brief stint as office secretary for the historic congregation (my family had worshipped there since the late 1950s), gave me access to the ancient register of over one hundred years of baptisms, confirmations and funerals, including the scores buried at Waldheim. Without those records, it’s difficult to believe that more than a handful are buried there. Half of the cemetery (left), about the size of a city block, appears more serene park than consecrated burial grounds.

There are some names still visible that I recognized in my research and used in my story. For example, the headstone pictured below may belong to the owners of a

Headstone in Waldheim Cemetery

Headstone in Waldheim Cemetery

Tolleston dry goods store that was located near 9th Avenue. I used that in my manuscript as the place where the aforementioned protagonist, working as a poacher on the run from Tolleston Gun Club game wardens, sold her haul. There are actually several headstones and family plots with the name Scheuneman scattered throughout the cemetery.

Those of you familiar with Gary history might recognize the name Gibson (below). Maria Gibson, along with her husband, was the owner of the Gibson Inn, a stagecoach stopover for pioneers traveling between Detroit and Chicago.

Headstone of Maria Gibson, owner of the Gibson Inn

Headstone of Maria Gibson, owner of the Gibson Inn

The Gibson Inn was located at what is now 14th Avenue and Madison Street where Froebel School once stood.

Today, the cemetery is flanked by a tiny strip mall, a private residence, a church and a Kingdom Hall. It is maintained by the Calumet Township. The headstones that haven’t fallen over are visible from the street. Several demarcations of family plots like the Scheuneman’s still survive. I wonder how many Garyites like me have passed this place without giving it a second thought.

Check out my Pinterest page to see more of the cemetery and headstones with visible names. Maybe some of you former Garyites might recognize some of them.

 

 

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About Michelle McGill-Vargas

Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in "Lutheran Witness", "Splickety Magazine", "The Copperfield Review", and "Typehouse Literary Magazine." She served as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a special education administrator with a background in deaf education. In October 2018, she will be a contributor to Concordia Publishing House's quarterly devotional series "Portals of Prayer." Visit her blog at www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com
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30 Responses to Digging Through History: Gary, Indiana’s Tolleston Cemetery

  1. Kathy Heckman says:

    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&GSsr=1&GScid=87263&CRid=87263&pt=Waldheim%20Cemetery&

    Members of Find a Grave have identified over 600 burials there. Is this the same cemetery?

  2. Helen M. Brandt says:

    Hi Michelle, I remember attending a funeral at Waldheim cemetery. It was a lovely spring day. Wish I could remember who it was that died. I think that the baptism picture that you showed was the Woodall family and Maria. Lots of good memories.. Thanks for sharing. Love, Your Godmother Helen

  3. Phil Vaclavik says:

    Hi Michelle,
    My mother was born and raised in Tolleston, graduating from Tolleston in 1944. Her maiden was Mizerak and I’m curious if there were Mizeraks buried in that cemetery. I know there’s some buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery on 45th & Harrison.

    • There is a website: findagrave.com that has a list for those buried in Waldheim, though I don’t think it is a complete list because some headstones I’ve seen with my own eyes aren’t listed. But check that to see if she’s listed.

  4. Kathy Heckman says:

    Search for “Mizerak” at Ancestry.com
    Mizerak, John 125409767
    b. 1876 d. 1931 Oak Hill Cemetery
    Gary
    Lake County
    Indiana, USA
    Mizerak, Joseph A. 60163531
    b. Feb. 9, 1910 d. Nov. 3, 1960 Saint Mary’s Russian Orth…
    Gary
    Lake County
    Indiana, USA
    Mizerak, Katherine 125409794
    b. 1884 d. 1927 Oak Hill Cemetery
    Gary
    Lake County
    Indiana, USA
    Mizerak, Serge 118606241
    b. Jun. 25, 1943 d. Feb. 28, 2013 Saint Mary’s Russian Orth…
    Gary
    Lake County
    Indiana, USA
    Visit the Indiana Find A Grave Forum!!

    These are the only Mizerak’s listed in Find a Grave for Lake County, Indiana

  5. marciwalter says:

    Interesting grew up in Merrillville, family was there in late 1890’s love researching for a story line, and finding wonderful surprises you least expect.

  6. Pingback: St. John’s Lutheran Church: Gary, Indiana’s Oldest Congregation | Michelle McGill-Vargas

  7. Debbie Pastor says:

    My great uncle, Emil Petznik, is buried in that cemetery. He passed away at 9 months old from pneumonia. I have a photo of my grandparents at the gravesite. Because of that photo I was able to go there and identify their plot. The headstone has sunk and you can no longer see the name on it. He was baptized and buried from St. John’s Evangelical Church where my grandparents worshipped. My parents were married in that church. My Mom and Aunts were baptized and confirmed there as were me and my siblings. Fond memories of that church and such beautiful windows.

  8. Michael Wilson says:

    What an excellent read! Thank you for taking the time to look into the rich history that lies within Gary, Indiana. My great great-grandmother Rosalie Lucey is buried in Waldheim Cemetery and she was the first Postmistress of Tolleston from 1879 until her death in 1914. The property she grew up on was settled and acquired by her father, August keck, through the General Land Office in 1873 and is currently the Ridgelawn Cemetery property. August Keck was proprietor of one of Tolleston’s first general stores in the 1880s and a participant in the local campaign against the Tolleston Club of Chicago throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Thank you for your work and time in looking at a very overlooked and vitally important part of this area’s past. I look forward to future articles from you!

    • You have an interesting history! I’ve written some about the Tolleston Gun Club. I’d love to hear/read about any tales you may know of involving your ancestor. Thanks f taking he time to read this. Glad you enjoyed t!

  9. george says:

    to Michelle McGill-Vargas, I enjoyed your story about the Waldheim Cemetery, we would pass by that cemetery every Sunday morning on our way to Sunday school and I would always look at that cemetery and wonder why the grass was so high not being cut ? ( this was in the middle 1970’s). If you ever do a story about Oak Hill Cemetery 4450 Harrison st Gary, please let me know. I was attending the grave of a friend,,,,and I came across MANY children size graves in a large area dating in the 1930’s and I just wonder if it was a sickness outbreak that killed the little kids in the same year ? I wrote a letter to the cemetery,if they have records of those kids in 1930’s but they never responded
    thankyou.

    • Glad you liked the article. Interesting about the Oak Hill Cemetery. I’ll have to look into. Thanks from mentioning it!

      • george says:

        Thank you Michelle, sometime around memorial day this coming may…I am going back out there to oak hill, and I will let you know the section the kids are in. It made me very sad to see so many around age 3-4 years old. we are talking about the 1930’s…where they did not have the ‘technology’ that we have today to save a life from a contagious illness , but I will give you more info around late may 2016.

      • Richard Vargas says:

        Michelle, I really enjoyed this site. I’m originally from Gary and am fascinated with Gary’s history. My family still lives a few blocks from the Oak Hill Cemetery, and a few years ago I located the final resting place of the original occupants of the home I grew up in. I also found the grave site of Gary’s first Mayor Thomas Knots, very near the front entrance. Your reader George may find this interesting; when we moved into our house on Madison Street, back in 1977, we spoke to an elderly woman who remembered the very first person buried at Oak Hill, it was a little girl. Also interesting is the fact that in the late 80s early 90s, the land that is now part of the cemetery and sits on the north end of 43rd Avenue directly across the street from the cemetery, was the West Glen Park Little League field and a city pool. In the late 80s, two little brothers, who lived just houses down from my house (43rd block on Madison) walked away from their home and drowned at that abandoned pool, they were six and seven years old respectively. I believe they are buried at Oak Hill. I could go on and on if you’re interested. Feel free to E-mail me at whispersinthenight16@aol.com. I’m currently collecting NW Indiana ghost stories for a book I’m trying to put together. By the way, my name is Rick Vargas

      • Thanks for visiting the site. I would be very interested to read your ghost stories book. I’m sure there are a lot of ghostly stories to glean from this area. I do remember hearing the story about the drownings, but the others I have not. I’m also open to guest posts…If you have something that you’d like to share about Gary history, or have written something on your own blog you’d like for me to repost, let me know. I’d be happy to do it!

  10. Karen Cooper Okazaki says:

    I was just in that area of town late this afternoon…I have often wondered about the history of that cemetery. My daughter was with me when we took a wrong turn and ended up behind the JW Kingdom Hall …north of what looks like a new Retirement Home and to our west was the school district building that administration now uses. A banged up old road and a rickety chain link fence did not keep us from getting inside of part of what I assumes to be a different area of the cemetery you speak of….we were mezermized by the history and the unkept beauty that our eyes happened upon. Tiny babies and an area of what I would presume to have been paupers graves fell beneath our feet. My heart sank and I hung my head with in silence for the souls whose bodies were lain to rest on those grounds.

  11. Richard Vargas says:

    Thank you Michelle, I don’t have a blog, and have only recently created a face book account which I’ve already lost interest in. Once I get enough stories together I’ll send you some for a sneak preview. In the mean time I’m having a lot of fun interviewing local so called paranormal investigation teams, all of which come equipped with a self proclaimed “sensitive” who speaks to the dead.

  12. Jane Morocco says:

    I love all this history on the Gary, Indiana area! I have writings of Virginia Moe (Ingwald Moe’s daughter -“The Moe House”. The writings mention many of the the people in the various cemeteries in and around the Gary area were she grew up among other things. I grew up volunteering at a wildlife center Virginia worked at for 52 yrs. I did much of my research for a book on her in the Miller beach area. I have over 200 original photos in the book of the interior and exterior of of her home -The Moe House. The book was published 2 yrs. ago by Arcadia Publishing called “Trailside Museum: The Legend of Virginia Moe.” There is a Facebook page by the same name. I would love to keep in contact with anyone that has Gary history . I am thinking of doing another book.

  13. Veronica Andrews says:

    Do you know where the Washington Memorial Cemetery is in Gary? Is it near Delaney projects?? I would like to explore some forgtten places in Gary, IN myself! Thanks for your article

  14. Pamela says:

    Many of my family is buried here from: Kunerts, Aurich, Bormans,Buse,and other families. It is sad to see it has been vandalized so much. I remember my mother taking me there back in the late 60’s and many of the headstones had beautiful ceramic pictures of the deceased on the tombstones. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Richard Vargas says:

    I was on a web site called Forbidden Places, and people from Gary post their memories and re-connect with people they haven’t spoken to in decades. One day I posted the question, “does anyone out there remember the murder of an elderly lady who owned and operated I believe a record store in the Brunswick area back in the mid 60’s?” A man in his early 60s replied and knew the story well. He knew the killer because he went to school with him at Edison High School on 5th Ave and Burr Street and remembered the elderly lady very well. According to him, he believes that the elderly lady was Frank Borman (the astronaut’s) grandmother. Would you know if that was true? Perhaps Pamela is related to her and knows if this is true. Hit me up at riccvargas@aol.com.

    V/r

    Rick Vargas

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