Simple gray rectangular stones stretch out in neat rows at the back of Greenlawn Cemetery.
More than 700 people are buried in this section of the cemetery, all had been residents of the Indiana Masonic Home. The earliest stones date back to the 1910s, with those resting beneath them having been born in the early 1800s.
Among them are veterans of World Wars I and II, the Spanish-American War, even the Civil War.
But no definitive record of their service has been kept, until now. Franklin resident Carolyn Wessel, with the help of her husband Jim, have started exhaustively cataloging every name in the Masonic home’s plot. For each one, the Wessels have dug through historic archives and genealogical libraries looking for evidence of who is a veteran and who is not.
When the record is complete, it will give a clear picture of the men and women who lived at the Masonic home and served their country.
“It’s always been important to me to honor the veterans. My grandfather was in the Spanish-American War, and we need to honor those people with flags,” Carolyn Wessel said.
The effort was born two years ago on Veterans Day. Carolyn and Jim Wessel had just moved to a cottage at the Indiana Masonic Home and were attending the first program honoring veterans at the home.
They found that throughout the entire Masonic plot, not one of the grave markers had a flag honoring that person as a veteran.
“That bothered us. It didn’t seem right that there were no flags,” Carolyn Wessel said.
The cemetery plot at Greenlawn was purchased specifically for residents of the Indiana Masonic Home who had not previously purchased a spot in a cemetery.
A stone monument looks over the markers dedicated to the members of “the Indiana Masonic Home who now rest from their labors.”
Since opening, 719 people have been buried in the portion of the cemetery.
Checking with the City of Franklin, which manages Greenlawn Cemetery, the Wessels found there was no record of who was a veteran and who was not. The Masonic home did not have that information either.
Carolyn Wessel took it upon herself to try and uncover that information. Genealogy is a hobby of hers, and this project fell right in the scope of her research.
She made cards for each person buried in the Masonic plot. Armed with the names, she spends hours at the Johnson County Museum of History or Johnson County Public Library to find records of local residents.
Since grave stones have the person’s year of death, she could look through microfilm to find an obituary.
The task is complicated by the fact that many people who came to live at the home were from all over the country, and as far away as England. That means Carolyn Wessel has to find that person’s hometown, then look up records in that locale.
“People were born somewhere else, they moved to the U.S. and became Masons, then they moved here. So it’s a struggle,” she said. “It’s taken us forever so far, and we haven’t gotten very far.”
For older residents, such as those who served in the Civil War, Carolyn Wessel has relied on old pension forms and records, hoping to match names, ages and residences.
“Some of those people have no relatives, and no one to get in touch with. It’s like a mystery, you have to follow the clues,” Jim Wessel said.
She is also looking for women who served in the World War II, flying planes to England or joining the Coast Guard. So she has expanded her search to include them.
“It’s time consuming. You go in, spend a few hours working, and often don’t come out with anything,” Carolyn Wessel said.
So far, the Wessels have confirmed 22 veterans buried at the plot. The project is still ongoing, and whenever Carolyn Wessel gets tips or information from other residents, she starts researching to get more information.
Despite the fact that her efforts aren’t complete, Carolyn Wessel isn’t waiting to honor those at the Masonic section. This year, a group of volunteers came to the plot and set up 144 flags on the Masonic section. They had to arrange the flags at random, since they didn’t know yet who was a veteran.
“If we find one that seems to fit, we count it. We figured it’s better to put a flag on it than not,” Carolyn said. “You get into it, and you want to see it through.”