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On the trail of history

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Local efforts return children's 1800s tombstones to cemetery

By The Staff

A pair of old tombstones apparently separated from the graves they were intended to mark are back where they belong — thanks to a combination of dedicated detective work and a desire to preserve a pioneering family's legacy.

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Evelyn Lasley, who staffs the genealogy department at the Tell City-Perry County Public Library, is the main sleuth in the tale of the tombstones created for two members of the Shields family, 3-year-old Addison and his 2-year-old sister, Mary.

Addison was born in 1845 and Mary in 1841.

It was about three years ago when Lasley was approached by Chuck Poehlein from the Perry County Museum about her interest in tracking down the origins of the stones, which had been placed in the Poehlein's care by Darla Olberding of Evansville.

Olberding knew Poehlein's interest in history and hoped he could shed light on the history of the two children and their family.

Olberding said a woman had purchased the tombstones for $1 at an auction in Perry County but only placed a bid to keep them from being resold or discarded.

"She didn't think the tombstones should have been in an auction to begin with so she bought them so they weren't destroyed or thrown away," Lasley said.

Olberding didn't want to see the gravestones sold again. That led to them being brought to Perry County.

Poehlein was asked if he had an interest in finding out more about the Shields family. Knowing the rightful places for the stones were the graves they intended to memorialize, Poehlein turned to Lasley for help.

The sleuthing began in earnest. Lasley, who has access to a treasury of Perry County cemetery information, had no direct information on a Shields Family in Perry County. That led her to think the family might have hailed  from Crawford County. She asked former library co-worker Pam Drake for help.

"I asked Pam to place a query on an Internet site requesting any information I might be able to glean from anyone knowing this family," Lasley wrote in one of two stories about the tombstones published last year in Hoosier Heritage Magazine.

The only real information Lasley or Drake had were the names of the children, dates of their births and names of their parents, Lewis and Sarah A. Shields.

It didn't take long for the first tip to arrive. A woman named Linda Zapp from Greenwood e-mailed Lasley information she had found on Web site with links to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lasley concluded the children were born to Lewis and Sarah Ann Williams Shields of Crawford County. The Web site also stated that they were buried in Riddle Cemetery, also located in that county.

Lasley contacted Richard Eastridge, county historian in Crawford County, and shared what she knew. He picked up the stones last May, driving to Cannelton on a cold, rainy Mother's Day.

"Mothers always wait for their children to come home and this woman had waited a long time to see her babies come back," Lasley said of the importance the stones must have meant to the children's parents.

The stones don't show a lot of wear, suggesting they could have been taken away long ago or perhaps not even placed on the graves at all. Eastridge said it was possible for the stones to have been ordered by the parents but perhaps were not picked up or placed on the graves as planned.

That changed last October, when the two stones were erected in the cemetery. The event drew descendants of the Shields family. Densil Wilson, president of the Crawford County Historical Society, provided a welcome and Lasley recalled the story of how the markers found their home.

Bill Shields, a patriarch of the Shields family, also spoke and expressed his appreciation for the work of local historians.

The stones were placed on either side of the graves of the children's parents.

The exact location of the original graves wasn't known but family members concluded it was best to place the stones next to the children.

A short time after the October ceremony, a woman from Greenville called and said she had a tombstone from a third Shields sibling.

"She, too, had purchased it at an auction and had put it in storage," Lasley wrote in a follow-up to her story. Family members planned to erect it in the cemetery.

Lasley, who regularly helps people trace their family trees through her job, feels pride at helping solve the "puzzle of the missing stones."