Genealogists and others who walk through local cemeteries and look at the monuments of their ancestors probably never think about who carved and set these stones, and in most cases we have no way of knowing whose work you are. What we do know is that Knox County’s cemeteries are full of monuments carved by Peter Burns. Burns owned a memorial business in Vincennes for over 50 years, from 1885 until his death in 1937. Over the course of his career he has had several different partners and has worked in various locations around the city.
Peter J. Burns was born on March 9, 1855 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He trained as a marble cutter in Louisville, Kentucky, and was employed by other monument companies for a decade. The 1880 census shows him as a marble cutter in Jeffersonville. He moved to Vincennes with his wife and young daughter in 1885 and formed a partnership with Edward M. Salyards, called Salyards & Burns. Their business was on Seventh Street and Hickman Street (now College Avenue).
Salyards & Burns had a thriving business, designing, manufacturing, and importing monuments, and selling their works in Knox County and beyond. A brief article in the Vincennes Daily Commercial dated March 4, 1886 states that they sold a $ 500 granite memorial to SS Hollingsworth to be placed in Upper Indiana Cemetery.
Despite its success, the partnership was short-lived and was dissolved in March 1888. The following year Burns teamed up with Frank P. Schreiber in Burns & Schreiber on North Seventh Street across from the courthouse. Burns & Schreiber acquires John Hartigan’s marble business.
At the Knox County Fair in 1891, Burns & Schreiber presented white marble statues, including a statue imported from Italy called “Grief” to adorn Anna McKinley’s grave in Wheatland Cemetery. McKinley died of typhus in 1889 at the age of 14.
For a while Burns operated under the name PJ Burns & Co. at 107 North Third Street. In 1896 he called his company the Standard Monument Works, and it was to bear that name from then on.
Burns’ next partner was Oliver Stout with his shop on South Second Street. In 1897, Burns and Stout designed the moldings and lettering for the massive memorial to Rev. AJ Merz of St. John’s German Catholic Church that was in Mt. Calvary Cemetery in the fall.
In 1898 Burns was commissioned to build the large Charles Graeter memorial, which can now be seen near the entrance to Greenlawn Cemetery. In 1907 he built the mausoleum of Sanford Goss in Fairview Cemetery.
There is another significant monument in Vincennes that we know was the work of Peter Burns. In 1905, the Daughters of the American Revolution marked the location of old Fort Sackville and erected a limestone monument on the west side of First Street between Church Street and Barnett Street. Burns donated the carving of the long inscription and set the six-foot-high stone for free. He was known to have a keen interest in local history. In 1929 the area was cleared for the construction of the George Rogers Clark Memorial and the stone was removed and thrown onto a heap of rubble. It was saved in 1936, shortly before the monument was inaugurated, and put back next to the memorial staircase where it can be seen today.
By 1908, Burns’ Standard Monument Works was making more than $ 20,000 a year (more than $ 600,000 today). He employed eight workers and three salesmen, the latter of whom traveled through southern Indiana and Illinois.
In the mid-1920s he worked intermittently with Charles Ferguson at Burns & Ferguson with offices on Tenth Street and Willow Street.
From the late 1920s until his death, Burns’ business was on North Sixth Street Road at Dixie Bee Line Junction.
In later years Burns retired from an active role in the memorial works. He died on March 18, 1937, aged 82, at his daughter’s house on South Fifth Street. He was buried in Fairview Cemetery with a fairly simple memorial.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County, published by The History Press last year, is available from the Knox County Public Library and Amazon.