Friday, May 1, 2009

The Cornettsville Dust Devil

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The last time I visited the Cornettsville Cemetery, I was a teenager. This time, my mother had decided to catalog the entire cemetery for her genealogical research. A long, lazy summer drive from Indianapolis south to Daviess County, Indiana; the cemetery is only slightly smaller than downtown Cornettsville itself.

A winding access road though the middle of farmland took us to a parking place next to an old fence. There, we drank from an artesian well, the distinctive “rotten egg water” that supposedly has health benefits.

My folks, my sister and I took an orderly approach this time, working a grid to document all the graves, including that of an ancestor, William R. Baker. In chapter 7 of The History of Daviess County,
it states “Among the business men of the place are William R. Baker, general store and post office; John N. Killion, blacksmith, and Dr. J. M. Achor. The handsomest public school building in the county, outside of Washington, is located at Cornettsville.”

Baker was a Civil War veteran, and I’ve restored several photos of him. One in particular, I remember from my childhood, because it hung for years on the wall by our front door, in a flaming pink frame. Baker, posed proud and stiff, in full Union Army regalia; the photo caught sunlight and had faded significantly before I had a chance to bring it back digitally. No matter how many times my father teased my mother about relegating the poor fellow to the pink frame, she never relented.

I remember this as an enjoyable excursion, though it took most of our day to catalog the cemetery. Shortly before we were planning to leave, I was standing at the northeast corner of the cemetery, looking out over the patchwork quilt rectangles of crops neatly laid out among the southern Indiana hills; it reminded me of photos I’d seen of the British countryside, arranged in peace, grace and order.

It was a sunny summer day, not too hot, perfect for this kind of outing. As I looked out over the farmland, I saw something odd stir a couple of rectangles over to my right – at the ground, something began to churn the dust and detritus up from the cornfield, and spin it up into the sky in a tight spiral; a dust devil formed in front of me. It seemed completely out of place – there had been a light breeze, but no wind, and there were only a few wispy clouds far up in the sky that day. It seemed as if the dust devil had started from the ground and moved up.

I watched with fascination as it began to move, and then hop towards me like a miniature tornado. It bounced up the hill and paused right over me – I was in the center, and watched the leaves and dust just spin around me. It was eerie – in the eye of this “storm” it was peaceful, and yet there was this energy completely surrounding me. No noise, no wind except for the rustle of the spinning leaves. Just to describe my feelings – I was suddenly cold, as if from the inside out, and I felt as if I were being touched, scrutinized perhaps, by something intelligent. Just a subjective description, yet…

It moved off from me, and then stopped with my sister at its center. Then it hopped again, visiting my parents exactly the same way. As it left them, we all started to follow it, as it approached our car.

On the hood of the Chevy was one of the notepads, filled with details transcribed from the tombstones. As all of us watched, one by one, the top three sheets were torn from the pad, left to right, as if an invisible hand were ripping them off methodically; the pad itself stayed stationary on the hood.

From there, the dust devil made one more hop, about 20 yards past the car. We stood there utterly amazed as we watched those three pages circle around and around, up and up, until they were out of sight. Then just as suddenly as it had begun, it simply stopped. The heavier leaves and dust just dropped straight to the ground, while that which had been spinning ever upward, fluttered down in random trajectories.

We split up and ran in different directions, 20 or 30 yards out from the epicenter, trying to catch a glimpse of the missing pages, in order to retrieve them.

Except, they didn’t come down.

When it made the last hop past the tree line, the dust devil spun the pages up, out of reach, but we could see them for a while. There was nothing but open ground, and the pages did not reappear. We walked another grid, and never found a trace.

By now, all of us were spooked, and it was a long drive home.

Other people have since cataloged the names at the Cornettsville Cemetery, but it seemed at the time, that something didn’t want us to have that information. Yes, it is an irrational, even superstitious, emotional reaction; one that made its own kind of sense to us, in the moment.

From the above Google satellite map, not much has changed there in all these years. And somehow, that’s a comforting thought.

A more recent view of the cemetery, by Steven C. Guy.

Below: Mary Jane and William Riley Baker.