Founders Day: Land’s new owners lead effort

VAN BUREN TWP. — The land where John and Sarah Lechleiter plan to spend their retirement is the land where stone carver Henry Cross lived, worked and died.

“Almost every painting in this house is by a Brown County artist, dead or alive,” said John Lechleiter, gesturing to an Ada Shulz masterpiece above the mantel.

It only made sense that the couple would play a role in memorializing Cross’ most famous work: the Stone Head marker, which an unknown vandal destroyed last fall.

The Lechleiters, with the Brown County Art Gallery Foundation, are behind The Spirit of Stone Head, a fundraiser to create a monument to Cross and his statue.

The stone Cross cut to make Stone Head was likely quarried from the Leichleters’ property, John said. Another large block — which Cross also likely cut from the earth himself — was taken from the Leichleters’ land a few months ago for Bloomington carver Casey Winningham to make into a new monument.

“It’s a travesty we lost Stone Head,” Lechleiter said.

“At first, we thought we could commission someone to recreate the stone head, but there’s only one Stone Head.”

The new marker is meant as a sort of epitaph to both Cross and the Stone Head figure, with Stone Head’s date of “death” listed as 2016.

Cross himself died in 1864 at age 42, in a tree-cutting accident on what is now the Lechleiters’ property. He was buried in Mellott Cemetery, part of which the Lechleiters own.

Ironically, his own headstone is not nearly as nice as the ones he carved, Lechleiter said.

Though he achieved regional notoriety in his day, carving as many as 100 stones and two known sculptures including Stone Head, a century after his death, Cross had been all but forgotten — except by local people.

That was the conclusion that art professor W. Douglas Hartley drew in 1966, when he went in search of the carver behind the unusually intricate stones he found in a Bartholomew County cemetery.

“It is ironic that the ‘first artist’ of Brown County, famed as an art center, has been totally neglected, unrecognized and forgotten,” he wrote in his book, “The Search for Henry Cross.”

“It is also ironic that the old pioneer who had made so many tombstones for others should have his own grave marked by a stereotyped stone which, in time, has been broken and its three main parts lean haphazardly against the stub.”

The Lechleiters hope that events such as The Spirit of Stone Head will help to draw attention to all the cultural icons — landmarks and living legends — Brown County is so rich to have.

The couple, of Indianapolis, discovered Brown County’s art tradition only about 20 years ago through an Art Renaissance Weekend, and wished they had known of it sooner.

“I think not enough people recognize the great art tradition we have,” Lechleiter said.

“You know, I think in 100 years, they will say that we had painters today, artists today who were every bit as good as the people we view as the old masters — (T.C.) Steele, or Otto Stark, or (William) Forsyth.

“There are only a few artists in the state that can rely on the income from their work to sustain a livelihood. That means, I think, it’s important to support them, and for their work to get the acclaim it deserves.”

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.