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Frank Gray

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Trail of the dead coming together

Sometimes, what seems to be a great idea just takes a little while to catch on.

Three years ago, the Noble County Convention and Visitors Bureau came up with a novel idea for generating a little tourism. It invented what it calls the Tombstone Tour.

People have been visiting historic cemeteries in big cities and the cities of the dead in New Orleans for years, but the notion is that graveyards in small towns around America are full of great stories, and that people will come to see graves there, too, and hear the tales behind the people buried there.

John Bry, who came up with the idea, envisioned Tombstone Trails that would eventually thread all through the country.

The Tombstone Trail he invented in 2010 has now grown to include five counties in the area. What caught my attention was word that DeKalb County had opted to rejoin the trail this year.

Why would a county be part of something like that and drop out, I asked Bry.

It was all about money. The counties participating in the Tombstone Trail are expected to contribute $500 each to print brochures that can be sold to people who want to take the tours. But last year, DeKalb County couldn’t come up with the money, so it dropped out.

Well, the DeKalb County Historical Society has decided to take over responsibility for compiling the stories behind the graves and to kick in the $500 toward the brochures.

So the trail is back to five counties now, but it still hasn’t caught on like wildfire.

“Word is getting out, but it’s going to take some time,” Bry said.

Still, the network Bry envisions is slowly beginning to take shape. Lake County has decided to become part of the trail, and Champaign County in west-central Ohio has jumped in, along with a county in northern Pennsylvania and a group called Gravestone Girls in Cape Cod.

By next year, Bry says, Indiana’s Tombstone Trail will reach from the Illinois to the Ohio border, in the northern part of the state, at least.

Each participating county is expected to come up with all-new stories each year to keep the tours fresh, Bry said.

“You can see something different and learn something different” each year, Bry said. “There are endless combinations to keep retelling the story.”

“It’s grassroots tourism at its finest,” Bry said.

And every year, there will likely be a stunning new story uncovered.

Like the tale behind the Whitley County grave of a man named Isaac Shinneman. Shinneman had a brother named Jacob, but after a run-in with the law, he fled the area, and the family never heard from him again.

When the Civil War broke out, Isaac Shinneman fought with the Union.

The story is that, in some now-unknown location, Shinneman’s Indiana volunteers were coming under fire from a Confederate sharpshooter, losing a couple of men a night.

Shinneman was ordered to swim a river, find the sharpshooter and take him out, which he did. Later he returned home, still carrying that rifle, which he kept all his life.

It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that he told his son the rest of the story. After killing the sharpshooter, he went up to the dead rebel’s body and rolled him over to look at him. It was his brother, Jacob.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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