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Old plots, now in the way

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 4:59 p.m. CST

CHESTERFIELD — Joe Lane found the cemetery by accident.

He lived only a few yards away, but it was hidden beneath vines, shrubs and the decaying leaves of a giant tulip tree. Then, one evening nearly 20 years ago, a neighbor's dog got loose, running into woods across the street.

Lane followed the dog into the thicket. He smacked his head against a marble slab. Glancing around, he saw another stone poking through the weeds. Then another. They were grave markers, with names such as Kuhlmann and Gutermuth and with dates such as 1883 and 1892.

Lane began clearing away the brush. He cleaned off the headstones and cut down weeds as high as a basketball hoop. And he kept maintaining the property. Over the next 20 years, he became the unofficial caretaker of the Arminia Lodge Cemetery.

But when the Missouri Department of Transportation launched plans to expand Highway 141, the cemetery and Lane's house were in the way. MoDOT worked around the cemetery to avoid having to move it, but Lane's house in Chesterfield fell to the wrecking ball.

Now that he's gone, no one knows who will maintain the cemetery. It's a familiar story in other parts of Chesterfield and the St. Louis region.

Suburban development often comes with a peculiar obstacle for transportation officials and city officials: old graveyards.

They can be expensive to move and often become a source for code enforcement complaints. City officials estimate Chesterfield alone has 20 small abandoned graveyards. Wildwood has roughly 80 small family cemeteries, the majority of which are abandoned.

In some cases, cities adopted the cemeteries. Private citizen groups maintain others. But many, like Arminia Lodge, are orphans in limbo.

In the 1800s, families often visited loved ones' graves together, turning the outings into picnics, said Esley Hamilton, a preservation historian with St. Louis County.

That practice became less common by the 20th century. And today, family members are more likely to be scattered throughout the country.

"That makes the immediacy of a family cemetery less important," Hamilton said.

Lane for years has searched in vain for the owner of Arminia Lodge. During the past two decades, he couldn't stop wondering about the people buried steps from his front door.

"I'm supposed to take care of these people when they can't take care of themselves," he said.

Arminia Lodge now sits in the middle of a construction site, part of the $85 million expansion of Highway 141 into an expressway that stretches from Arnold to Hazelwood.

Arminia Lodge Cemetery, founded by German immigrants in 1885, is believed to hold the remains of 88 people. Only about three dozen headstones remain today, some so weathered that it's impossible to read the inscriptions.

The city of Chesterfield and MoDOT say they don't have the resources to maintain the graveyard.

Preservationists argue that the cemetery and others like it are too important to be ignored. Hamilton believes the city should consider taking it over.

"It's an important part of our heritage," he said.

Part of the problem, and one common among old graveyards, is tracing ownership. The Arminia Lodge, a German fraternal organization, is listed as the owner in county tax records. But the organization has been defunct for decades. Officials have been unable to attach a living person's name to the forlorn parcel.

Lane, 57, suspects the tale behind one grave — the one he crashed into years ago — is the reason why the cemetery fell into such neglect.

It's at the southeast corner, bears the name "Kraus" and contains the remains of eight people.

The headline from a March 1903 Post-Dispatch article about the Kraus family had this headline: "Father Ends Life After Exterminating Family."

The article told the story of a farmer who murdered his family by bludgeoning them with a hammer and slitting their throats. The farmer, August Kraus, then committed suicide by cutting his own throat.

Several cemeteries refused the Kraus family burial because of strict rules about the interment of murder victims and suicides, according to the article. But the Arminia Lodge Cemetery accepted them, placing the children's coffins one atop the other.

Lane says older residents have told him that "once those murders happened, no one wanted to have anything to do with that graveyard."

But the statement is not completely true. Records show people being buried at Arminia until 1944. Of the 88 people interred there, 25 were buried after the murders, though the vast majority of those already had relatives in the graveyard.

Thomas and Ken Storch know their great-grandfather, Frank Storch, is buried there, along with a great-uncle, Otto, and a great-aunt, Alvina. They have the death certificates to prove it.

Thomas, of Springfield, and Ken, who lives in Oklahoma, are hoping that Chesterfield or MoDOT will take over maintenance of the property. They can't say for sure where in Arminia Lodge their relatives are located but don't want to see the property fall apart again.

They walked through the cemetery one day last week, looking at unmarked indentations in the ground and wondering if they revealed their ancestors' final resting places.

"You got a depression here," Ken Storch said, pointing to the ground. "I bet you Frank and Otto are laying somewhere in here."

It is often the relatives of those buried in unkempt graveyards that rescue the sites.

Twenty years ago, Ernest Jordan put together a nonprofit group to take control of an old cemetery in Crestwood called Father Dickson, where roughly 12,000 people are buried.

Jordan was concerned about the waist-high weeds and the possibility of the land being sold to developers. The 64-year-old still cuts the grass and works with other volunteers to maintain the property.

"We survive solely on volunteers and donations," he said.

In other cases, saving a small cemetery requires a little ingenuity.

In the Camelot subdivision in Weldon Spring, three headstones rise in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Rather than move the graves, the subdivision's developer built the road around them.

When Bob Hagar moved into Camelot 13 years ago, it seemed eerie to look out of his front window and see the tiny graveyard. A UPS driver once asked him if it was part of a Halloween display.

"At first, my wife objected to it," said Hagar. "But we got used to it."

The homeowners' association maintains the site, making sure the tiny cemetery has plenty of mulch and that the bushes are trimmed.

For Arminia Lodge, the future holds more uncertainty.

After he sold his home to MoDOT, Lane moved to Maplewood. He still visits the cemetery from time to time and looks at the stone that he first ran into.

The stone has a new granite marker beside it. In 2003, he talked Mickey Carroll — the St. Louisan best known for playing a Munchkin in the "Wizard of Oz" and who also ran a monument business — into donating money for the new piece of granite. Lane had the new marker engraved with an angel for the six murdered children.

At the 100th anniversary of their murders, he held a ceremony with a few friends and his sons. They released a handful of balloons.

"My heart," Lane said, "is up there in that graveyard."


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