About forty yards south of Joliet Street, just west of the railroad tracks in St. John, Indiana, sits an oblong square of land only a little larger than a putting green.
White chain pleasantly draped on black posts surrounds its perimeter. The grass is mowed, the flower beds weeded. Visitors can still read the names and dates on the tombstones, although they date back a century and a half. In a state full of odd cemeteries and graveyards, this remote but revered site—officially titled the Hack Family Cemetery—may be one of the most unusual.
Today, St. John delineates rural and suburban Lake County. Inside its wide borders are residential communities, small industrial and commercial pockets and stretches of farm land. It is very different than the untouched wilderness John Hack, his wife Joanna, and their eight (!!) children slogged through only two decades after Indiana gained statehood.
Hack and his wife were Prussian immigrants, called Prussian because Germany wasn’t Germany at the time: it was a confederation of territories linked by culture and language. The Hacks were a long way from home, in an unsettled area of the United States then referred to as the Western Prairie.
Before the pioneers, Northwest Indiana had dense forests of oak and beech and gasps of prairie. Manually working the dense, damp clay of central Lake County could break John Henry’s back. Many writers refer to John Hack’s grit, determination and scrappy German fortitude. That may be true, but when faced with a choice of hard work or watching your eight children starve to death, most people even today would pick the former. I’d call that fear rather than fortitude.
Either way, John Hack was still a tough fellow, and his parcel of land soon thrived. His presence attracted other settlers, many of whom shared the same Germanic background. These family names still populate the city today.
In addition to his family and his culture, John Hack also brought his religion: Catholicism. Once his homestead was firmly established, he marked a small section of land and built a tiny, 400-square-foot church, which would become the settlement’s first Catholic Church (at the same time he also built a distillery for peach brandy). Hack provided the land and labor for the church, but the Holy See itself provided materials. A brave team hauled them from Chicago through fifty miles of mud and marshland to Hack, and soon he had four hundred square foot church in his “backyard.”
Here, Hack’s tale and the town’s origin story gets murky, chiefly because of rumors of a grand schism among church members so vicious one faction broke off and built another church a half mile away. An Indiana town with two churches isn’t unusual today, but consider the era: only a few families lived in a twenty-mile radius of St. John in the mid-1800s (mostly in Lowell and Crown Point). Two churches seems too much.
In the above 1874 sectional map of St. John by cartographer Rufus Blanchard, notice the distance separating the “newer” church from the site of John Hack’s first church (marked “J.H.” on the map).
Much more likely is Hack’s building the original church on the plot of land where his grave now rests, then discovering the small settlement had become a small town—Saint John or St. John, named after St. John the Evangelist. Suddenly, his 400 square foot church was too small. Hack donated more land for another church, with the stipulation that the new church would have a graveyard as well.
Decades passed. The new church was built, the graveyard (eventually) filled, and the town thrived. John Hack and his wife passed away, well-respected as the town’s founding family. They were buried in the tiny graveyard of the original church, but the town eventually recycled the old building, reusing some materials for the new church on Route 41. And there everything remained.
From a distance, it seems the tiny graveyard only contains a single grave. Actually it contains a few graves, with an obelisk marking one more prominent: John Hack’s.
In 2013, an Eagle Scout named Danny Revoir passed by this old cemetery and noticed the torn and battered American flag flying over the graveyard. Any former or current Boy Scout knows that pang of wrongness when the Flag Code is broken, and Danny decided to research the graveyard. This led him to the story of John Hack.
Fascinated by Hack’s story, Danny decided to renovate the graveyard as his Eagle Scout project, first asking permission from Hack’s distant remaining relatives. They had done the best they could with the cemetery, but erasing the effects of time and weather carry a heavy price in the bank and in the back. The Hack descendants were delighted to hear of Danny’s plans.
Dozens of scouts and almost 150 hours later, the cemetery is no longer an anonymous Lake County curiosity. Only a handful of graves populate it, including John Hack, his wife, a few family members and friends. Small cemeteries and graveyard like this dot the landscape of America, many of which have faded away to mounds of rubble. There is a great sadness in knowing that the pioneers’ fate is mostly in forgotten, anonymous graves. It seems there should be a greater reward in hacking through the wilderness so we are free zoom down highways and shop Amazon through our cable Internet today. At least we can take comfort in knowing that John Hack and his family are not anonymous and have not been forgotten.