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Stories Set in Stone: An Old Cemetery Tells Tales of IU’s Deep Past

Collection of tombstones in Dunn Cemetery
In the middle of the IU Bloomington campus sits a small family cemetery that dates back to the 1820s. Pictured in the foreground is the headstone of Benjamin Rice Dunn, who lived from 1830 to 1896. He is the brother of George Grundy Dunn Sr., who, in 1855, legally established the site as the family’s cemetery and dedicated it to his grandmother and two great-aunts. Photo by Marc Lebryk.

There’s something slightly uncanny about a cemetery reposed in the heart of a busy campus like IU Bloomington. The paths between Ballantine Hall, the Chemistry Building, and Woodburn Hall are teeming with students who check their phones and chatter with friends as they trek to their next classes. They bring the campus to life each year with fresh energy and new dreams. The concept of “eternal rest” is surely far from their minds. Yet, just a few steps away lies a cemetery in a shady knoll between the Indiana Memorial Union and Beck Chapel.

Dunn Cemetery is a peaceful spot with an air of a quiet dignity, keeping with its original purpose: Provide a private place of eternal rest for members of the Dunn and Brewster families who first settled in Bloomington. The site was designed in the shape of a kite, some have said, in the hope that it might help lift the beloved souls of the departed to heaven.

Two hundred years have passed since Samuel Fowler Dunn Jr. and Elizabeth (Grundy) Dunn migrated from Kentucky to Bloomington and purchased a large parcel of farmland in the 1820s. They raised eight children in a house they built near the School of Public Health (the former HPER building), and their cows once grazed in a pasture where the Garrett Fieldhouse stands today. Samuel’s widowed mother, Ellenor (Brewster) Dunn, also moved north to be near the couple. Several generations lived on or near the farm until 1883, when IU trustees purchased 20 acres for the construction of a new campus. Today, the cemetery is the most obvious remnant of the homestead, but one can also imagine its old pastoral beauty in the soothing green spaces of Dunn’s Woods and Dunn Meadow.

Black and white photo of Dunn Cemetery in the early 1900s
The cemetery in the early 1900s. Nearby campus buildings would soon rise up around it—the Indiana Memorial Union was completed in the 1930s; Beck Chapel in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

Velvety moss clings to the native limestone fence surrounding the cemetery. Maples, black walnut, pin oak, and other native hardwoods stand guard over the grounds. Inside the ironwork gate, weathered gravestones stand at odd angles. Approximately 68 people are buried in the cemetery, possibly a few more in unmarked graves. A dozen or so were born in the 1700s—several before the American Revolution. An unsettling number of infants and children rest alongside their parents. Some inscriptions are lost to time, washed smooth by centuries of rain and wind. The newest gravestones record death years of 2016 and 2019, indicating that the cemetery is still an active burial site.

As cemeteries go, it’s not very spooky. There is little if any ghost lore associated with the spot, beyond occasional sightings of a “lady in black.” But it’s still a popular stop on the annual ghost walk, organized by Folklore and Ethnomusicology students and faculty around Halloween.

Beneath the bluff on which the cemetery sits is the Union’s parking lot. Until 1950, that area was home to Jordan Field—used until 1924 for IU football games and until 1950 for IU baseball games. In winter months, the field was transformed into an ice-skating rink. One story claims that a game was once stopped to accommodate a funeral being held at the cemetery. Once the funeral ended, the game resumed.

Vincent Price, the mid-20th-century master of horror cinema, is said to have opened a lecture he gave at IU Bloomington in the 1980s by sharing how much he had enjoyed waking up in the Indiana Memorial Union that morning to the view of a graveyard beneath his hotel window.

A Curator of a Different Sort

Stephen Hofer standing next to tombstones in Dunn Cemetery
IU alumnus Stephen Hofer is a direct descendant of two of the three Brewster sisters. A seasoned genealogist with formidable knowledge of his Dunn and Brewster ancestors, he serves as genealogical curator of the cemetery. In the background is the monument to the Brewster sisters. Photo by Marc Lebryk.

Despite its prime location, IU cares for, but does not own the cemetery property. The Dunn family used the site as a family cemetery from the time they arrived in the 1820s, but it wasn’t until 1855 that the use of the lot was codified in a deed written by George Grundy Dunn Sr. (a son of Samuel and Elizabeth Dunn). In the deed, Dunn Sr. defined the lot size and dedicated the cemetery to his grandmother, Ellenor (Brewster) Dunn, and two great-aunts, Agnes (Brewster) Alexander and Jennet (Brewster) Irvine. It declares that only direct descendants of the three Brewster sisters can be buried on the property.

As anyone who has tried their hand at genealogy knows, proving direct descent from an ancestor isn’t always easy. Through the years, IU has sought expertise from those who know the Dunn-Brewster history well enough to determine the eligibility of individuals who petition for burial in the cemetery. Luckily, Stephen Hofer, BA’76, is one of those people.

Since 2006, Hofer has served as genealogical curator of the cemetery, voluntarily working with IU administrators who oversee the property to ensure that the family’s original intentions are honored. His considerable knowledge of family history is critical to the role. And he represents a rare convergence: He’s an IU alum and a direct descendant of not one, but two, Brewster sisters—the result of a marriage between two first cousins, when such marriages were not unusual. “Agnes and Ellenor are my fourth great-grandmothers and Jennet is my fourth great-aunt,” he explains.

In the 1970s, Hofer majored in journalism and political science and was active in student government. While still a student, a talent for reporting landed him a part-time job at Bloomington’s Daily Herald-Telephone and then a promotion, at the age of 22, to managing editor. He spent a fair share of time in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, watching the storied 1975– 76 Hoosiers make NCAA men’s basketball history. After graduation, he worked at the prestigious Miami Herald until moving on to law school at Northwestern University.

Today, he is a highly respected Los Angeles lawyer and the founder of Aerlex Law Group, one of the nation’s premier aviation law firms. His law career of 40-plus years has been unequivocally successful—his firm serves a roster of A-list clients, both Hollywood royalty and superstar athletes.

Separating Facts from Myths

In his student days, Hofer was aware of a familial connection to the cemetery, but not especially interested. “I was like most people. You don’t get interested in genealogy until all the people you want to ask questions of are already dead,” he says, laughing.

Having grown up hearing tales about ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, Hofer set out to learn more about his family—motivated by a desire to find records that would enable his mother to be inducted into the Daughters of the American Revolution in time for her 80th birthday. “I thought— this ought to be fairly easy,” he says, with a glint of irony. “And in fact, it took about a year. We didn’t get it done in time for mom’s 80th birthday, but we did it. Everything has to be documented, every single birth, every single death, every single marriage, and the children, going down to the next generation.”

Today, Hofer is a seasoned genealogist with formidable knowledge of his Dunn and Brewster ancestors. For some years now, he has been working on a book-length history, drawing on years of legal expertise combined with investigative reporting skills. He has identified a collection of authoritative sources to guide his research—not an easy task, particularly in pre-internet times— joined heritage societies and tracked down relatives for leads that might help a struggling researcher find a missing link.

“The thing about genealogy is, if you can back it up, it’s fact. If you can’t, it’s mythology,” he says.

Moles and Hoagy

A morning walk through the cemetery with IU’s Mitch Druckemiller and Larry Stephens, BS’73, serving as guides takes on an interesting dimension. Both view the grounds through the eyes of property managers and stewards. Druckemiller, an assistant director with IU’s Office of Insurance, Loss Control and Claims, or INLOCC, is still learning some of the unique aspects of oversight from Stephens, the retired director of INLOCC and a risk-management specialist for more than 35 years.

Clearly, both have a fondness for the historic property and its challenges. Over the course of an hour, they discuss plans to hire experts to clean and repair fragile gravestones without damaging their carvings, how to discourage moles from tunneling through the grounds, and the need to restore a few sections in the handsome limestone fence.

The lack of certainty about the number and location of graves makes it difficult to determine how many sites remain open to the family. The best estimate is less than a dozen, including a section designated for cremains. Stephens and Druckemiller have worked with the Indiana Geological Survey to create a map of the cemetery using ground-penetrating radar, a non-invasive method sometimes used to investigate historic cemeteries. They are awaiting interpretation of the results to get a clearer view of what lies beneath the ground.

Beck Chapel and Dunn Cemetery on a fall day
Beck Chapel was built with Indiana limestone and wood from southern Indiana forests, and it features a slate roof and copper spire. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

Although a number of burial petitions come to IU each year, most are dismissed outright for not meeting the Brewster descent requirement. Occasionally, petitioners have a good grasp of the records needed for proof and have already obtained most of them. These are referred to Hofer. “In those cases, I will try and help,” he says. “If I can do some research and find something that will help them break through the barrier, I’ll do it.”

The tough part of the job is turning people down when they fall short of proving their lineage. “It can be heartbreaking,” he says.

Hofer doesn’t envy the person who served in the curatorial role before him and had the difficult task of turning away Indiana music legend Hoagy Carmichael, LLB’26, DM Hon’72. A devoted IU alum, Carmichael is said to have been deeply disappointed. The composer of “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind” and a trove of Tin Pan Alley hits, Carmichael was laid to rest in Bloomington’s Rose Hill Cemetery in 1981. You can still visit him on campus—forever seated at his piano— immortalized in a sculpture by Michael McAuley, BS’78, MS’82, located just steps east of Showalter Fountain.

Like all cemeteries, the Dunn Cemetery is a repository of information, serving as a conduit to the people and events that shaped our present-day community.

“Sometimes people say that death is what gives meaning to life—and the places where people reflect on death tell us a lot about the changing realities of the living,” explains Eric Sandweiss, a professor and scholar of public history and memory at IU Bloomington.

Cemeteries, he explains, are places where “two important historical resources intersect.”

The first is text, in the form of genealogical information and in expressions of faith. The second is the shaped landscape of the site, which, he points out, “is itself a kind of text.”

Revolutionary Sister Act

It doesn’t take long to find the Brewster sisters’ monument in the diminutive cemetery. A three-sided pillar stands tall in the northwest corner of the yard, carved with their names, in order of youngest to oldest.

  1. Agnes Brewster Alexander (1763–1830)
  2. Jennet Brewster Irvine (1761–1839)
  3. Ellenor Brewster Dunn (1754–1841)

All three were born in the Colony of Virginia, near Augusta, in the Shenandoah Valley. Eventually, they settled in Bloomington, Ind., to be near each other and their children, who had begun moving to the new Indiana Territory in the late 1700s. All three died in Bloomington.

And then, a surprise. A plaque installed on the marker declares the sisters “Revolutionary War Patriots,” as decreed by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

It’s a discovery that presumably explains why George Grundy Dunn Sr. dedicated the cemetery to his grandmother and great-aunts. It also raises questions: How did the Brewster sisters become war heroes at a time when women were largely confined to domestic life? What acts of patriotism did they perform, considering they would have been ages 12, 14, and 21 when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord?

Men playing football on Jordan Field in 1899
A football game being played at Jordan Field in 1899. The cemetery’s white grave markers are visible at the right edge of the photograph. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

Hofer is somewhat circumspect about declaring the Brewster war stories unequivocal truth, given the lack of primary sources—no firsthand accounts such as letters or diaries written by the sisters have been found to date. But there are compelling secondary sources, including “The Revolutionary Service of the Brewster Sisters,” a document written around 1912 by four of the Brewster grandchildren. Their account aligns with much that is known about women’s roles during the Revolutionary War, as illustrated in these excerpts:

The family of James Brewster, of Augusta County, Virginia, gave strong and unfaltering support to the cause of American Independence. It was a family chiefly of daughters, but they gave to their country the result of their supreme effort as loyal women. … They knit, spun, wove, sewed and cooked to provide for the needs of the soldiers who could be reached by them. …

[T]hey did not wait for the regular sheep shearing time to renew their supply, but would catch the sheep (of which they had a great number), clip the fleece, and turn it into yarn as fast as possible and put it in the loom. As soon as a web was long enough to make a suit it was cut from the loom, made up, and sent to the front. … It is a fact well known to their descendants that these women … in times of peril, melted up their household utensils of pewter and moulded bullets from it.

Although standards of proof are generally more rigorous today, Hofer says, the grandchildren’s account held sway with the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1913, the Brewster sisters were officially recognized as Revolutionary War Ancestors.

Early Influencers

Long before social media gave us the term, members of the Dunn and Brewster families were influencers who made groundbreaking contributions to state and national politics, particularly in the realm of higher education. “I think there has always been a strong and meaningful connection to higher education—and that stretches back over the generations to a time when college attendance was quite rare,” Hofer says.

One standout is David Hervey Maxwell (1786–1854), who married into the Dunn family in 1809. Maxwell was a principal author of Indiana’s first constitution and a long-serving statesman. He is often called the “Father of Indiana University” for his legislative role in the creation of the Indiana State Seminary—IU’s earliest precursor.

George Grundy Dunn Sr. (1812–1857) is another case in point, but his story comes with a twist. Dunn, who wrote the cemetery’s deed, was a talented lawyer who served two terms in the U.S. Congress and one as an Indiana state senator. He was among the first students to attend what would become Indiana University—but things did not go well, according to family accounts. After a serious argument with his professor, he left the school in his third year without graduating. The nature of the conflict isn’t known, but it seems to have alienated him from both IU and Bloomington. It might explain why, ironically, George is not buried in the cemetery that he formally established, but instead was laid to rest in Bedford, Ind.

Forever Entwined

Knowing that a thirst for education is part of the family DNA makes the little cemetery, folded into the heart of the campus, perfectly placed.

The words of one of Samuel and Elizabeth’s granddaughters, Elizabeth (Dunn) Legge (1845–1932), offer a poignant glimpse of what cherished ground the old farm was to the family, and how emotional it must have been when their land and cemetery became forever entwined with IU. Legge composed these words as part of a “remembrance” she presented to the Monroe County Historical Society on May 4, 1906:

“I do not know what year our grandparents moved to Indiana, but I do know that the house at the old Dunn homestead was built in 1823, and the old farm, of which the college grounds are now a part, seems like sacred soil to us, grandchildren, and the little cemetery, surrounded by the college grounds, where so many of our dear ones sleep, was chosen by our grandfather as a burial place soon after they moved there. And we feel that if they could know, they would be pleased with the surroundings just as they are, and would rather our college, of which they were so proud, would be near them, than to have the town built around them, and that the cheers of the students on Jordan Field would disturb them as little as if they were living as it does now.”

Some who pass by the cemetery in the course of a busy day might see it as an oddity, others as an invitation to pause, breathe, or reflect. Genealogists, historians, and poets, perhaps, might see something more: a collection of stories set in stone. Most gravestones speak tersely. A name, some dates, a parting verse or prayer. But the stories of the people resting beneath them are open to anyone willing to follow a trail that begins with little more than a name.

This article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

Written By

Deborah Galyan

Deborah Galyan, BA’77, is a freelance writer. She served as executive director of communications and marketing for the IU College of Arts and Sciences from 2012 to 2022.

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