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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Late October thoughts turn to cemeteries and ghosts

By Barry Schrader.................................October 27, 2009

Some people think only of the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival come October, but the Sycamore History Museum and DeKalb Township decided it was time for cemetery walks. Despite the autumn chill recent tours have been conducted at Elmwood in Sycamore, then Oakwood and Evergreen cemeteries in DeKalb.
The brief inscriptions on people’s gravestones come alive as the tour guides explain the history of certain families and Civil War veterans, even leaving you with a sense of mystery about why some spouses or their children aren’t buried together, wondering where they may have been interred.
Tom Oestriecher, dressed in a full Union soldier’s uniform, took us to the graves of two Civil War veterans buried in the “black section” at Elmwood. Both men were black and had distinguished military careers. John William Salter was a hostler, also known as a horse trainer. He was placed in an all-white regiment, Company I, 43rd Regiment of the Wisconsin Infantry. It was rare for a white unit to include black people in those days. He was honorably discharged at the end of the war and given a pension. Records indicate he was married at age 15 to Sina Waffel and they had one son Roy.
The second black Union soldier, buried nearby, was John N.O. Briggs who mustered in March 29, 1864, as a private with the 29th United States Colored Troops of Company F. He fought in the siege of Petersburg which lasted 10 months and then his unit had the honor of being present at Appomattox to witness the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to the Union Army General U.S. Grant.

The grave marker of Civil War soldier John Salter stands in foreground while to the left with flag flying is the grave of John Briggs, another black Union soldier. Both are buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Sycamore.

This impressive structure near the entrance to Elmwood Cemetery is known as a "Mourning House" used by mourners in inclement weather. It was constructed about 1897 when the entrance gates were installed.

If only some newspaper reporter or oral historian had interviewed Briggs, we would have a firsthand account from someone who was an eyewitness to a major historical event. You wonder if he ever told his grandchildren stories about his military experience.
Also on the same tour we learned that the structure standing near the front entrance is called a “Mourning House.” It was built about 1897 when the gates were put up and used as a shelter for mourners during inhospitable weather.
The story of the John Chatfield family was told through five letters that he wrote his brother back in England over the years. The Englishman worked aboard a whaling vessel for seven years, then jumped ship when it was in the New York harbor, eventually finding his way to DeKalb County, buying land to farm on Charter Grove Road north of Sycamore. He was married in the Charter Grove Methodist Episcopal Church. For some unknown reason his first wife is buried in the Joiner Cemetery on Old State Road, while he, his second wife and the rest of his family have their graves at Elmwood. His letters back home tell much more about his life here and are worth publishing as a booklet.
Moving on to the Evergreen tour in DeKalb the following week, we found out from tour guide Steve Bigolin it is the oldest cemetery in that city, established in 1855 by a group of ladies organized as the DeKalb Center Sewing Society. They paid an inflated price of $122.50 to Norris Sweet for the two-acre parcel at South Seventh and Taylor streets, but later were not able to purchase additional acreage to expand it. The first person buried there was Sweet’s wife who died of smallpox. Next the ladies’ group purchased land in 1865 on North First Street behind the First Congregational Church (built much later) to establish the Oakwood Cemetery. The organization evolved into the Union Cemetery Association which maintained the two burial grounds until the early 1990s when DeKalb Township took over.
But now let’s move to the story of a third cemetery, told to us by Bigolin. It was known as the Pleasant Street cemetery and was also established in the late 1800s and was about where North Tenth and Pleasant streets cross today. It was abandoned in 1952 when the DeKalb City Council allowed a developer to take it over for building new homes there. He promised to move the 35 bodies and remaining tombstones to Oakwood, but there is no proof that many of the graves were relocated. However, a pile of markers can be found at the back corner of Oakwood.
Now the ghost story: Bigolin explained that around one home on North Tenth Street (exact address to remain anonymous to protect the property’s value) an infant can be heard crying from time to time. It seems that a 20-month-old baby was buried at that location many years before and people claim its soul or spirit still lingers there. Bigolin would not confirm nor deny the claim’s credibility.
There is much more to tell about the people buried at Evergreen but you must consider taking the next tour and learning firsthand. The walk will do you good.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115