Back in September, I talked about a visit to Shelby Farms, where I investigated a corner of the park that contains several mysteries: an ancient gravestone, the remains of an old cemetery, a tumbledown barn or stable, and even a pair of wrecked cars. Since then, several readers have suggested that other oddities exist in that area, so I hopped in my Daimler-Benz and decided to make another exploration.
After traipsing back and forth over the entire northeast corner of the park, this is what I discovered. First of all, stretching northward from Walnut Grove, about 100 yards west of Germantown Parkway, is an almost-overgrown stretch of asphalt that was once a driveway leading to a 1930s house on the property that everyone calls the “ranger’s house.” There was no park ranger when this house was occupied, however; it was actually the residence of a county agricultural agent, back when the park was the Shelby County Penal Farm.
The house was demolished years ago, but if you look closely, you can find some concrete walls that were apparently part of the basement, lots of bricks, and even some cast-iron pipes. That’s all that remains of the house. Nearby are plants that you normally wouldn’t find growing in the wild: rows of daffodils, yucca plants, and even a huge (but quite dead) prickly-pear cactus — apparently all that is left of a garden.
The driveway stops just past where the old house once stood, but if you keep following a trail into the woods (as I did), you eventually come to the ruins of the barn I discovered back in September. It’s much the worse for wear, but still standing, and if you follow the path a bit farther, you eventually come to the mysterious gravestone propped against the base of an ancient tree, inscribed with the birth and death dates of Robert and Mary Mann. As I said back in September, I don’t think anyone is actually buried here; for reasons we may never know, this fine grave marker was moved to this place. The stone was cracked when I first found it, and it’s now barely held together with a rusty metal brace bolted to the back.
I did make a new discovery this time: About 20 yards west of this mysterious marker is the base of another tombstone, almost overgrown with weeds. But I found no traces of open graves or brick-lined vaults, which some readers say they found in the area years ago. If they are still there, they are so overgrown (or filled in) that I couldn’t see them (and boy, I walked all over that area).
I should mention that I’ve done some other research as well, but came up empty-handed. A three-volume book on Shelby County cemeteries (which even includes solitary burials here and there in the countryside) does not include any mention of the Mann gravestone. And a search of Shelby County death records (online through the Shelby County Assessor’s Office) has no listing for Robert or Mary Mann in the late 1800s.
So it comes to this: My several visits to Shelby Farms have revealed just about all the physical clues that exist. But they have, unfortunately, brought me no closer to the basic question that was asked so many months ago: Who were Robert and Mary Mann, and why were they buried in such a lonely spot?