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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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A cemetery holds lots of life stories

By Barry Schrader.................................May 26, 2009

It seems appropriate on the day after Memorial Day to write about cemeteries, since many of us spent time placing flowers or artificial arrangements on the graves of loved ones over the past few days.
I noticed some families brought grass clippers, watering cans or even scrub brushes to clean the surface of the stones that sometime accumulate moss, bird droppings or other debris during the year.

DeKalb historian Steve Bigolin recently conducted a guided tour of one of the older cemeteries in the city – Oakwood, founded in 1865 and still an active burial site for local families. It is located behind the First Congregational United Church of Christ on North First Street, not readily visible to people driving along that road. The oldest cemetery still in existence in DeKalb is Evergreen, begun in 1855, at the corner of Taylor and South Seventh streets. Both burial grounds were taken over by the township around 1997, according to Bigolin.
He made the two-hour walking tour lively and interesting with anecdotes about the families and their connections to DeKalb business and well-known pioneers while reciting birth and death statistics as well. We learned there was a third cemetery at Pleasant and North 10th streets that opened in 1869, but has been pretty much abandoned over the years. A developer convinced the city council in 1952 to declare it vacated if he would employ an undertaker to move the remains and markers to Oakwood. Then he built houses on the land.

Steve Bigolin looks over the gravestone of Henry H. Wagner, one of the Civil War soldiers buried at Oakwood Cemetery. Second photo shows marker of Henry Gurler, the oldest Civil War vet in DeKalb County when he died in 1940.
(Barry Schrader - Daily Chronicle)

But the DeKalb County Genealogical Society (now known as the DeKalb County Historical- Genealogical Society) compiled records from the old cemetery and found that 14 caskets or remains never got moved to Oakwood. I won’t speculate on which homes might be located on those 14 burial sites, as it might affect housing values around 10th and Pleasant.

Bigolin told us about the famous cellist, Madam Raya Garbousova, a native of Russia, who was married to a Dr. Biss. She was a friend of Albert Einstein, who sometimes played his violin in private sessions with her. He came to many of her concerts and always placed a basket of chocolates at the foot of the stage for her. She died in 1997 and was buried at Oakwood.

Among well-known families’ graves on the tour are the Marsh brothers, William and Charles, of Marsh Harvestor fame. Also buried there are Henry and George Wagner, who both fought in the Civil War. George was the oldest Civil War veteran in the county when he died in 1940, 75 years after the end of the war. His brother, Henry, went into the dry goods business in DeKalb, with a store that lasted 110 years. He had hired a young man named Mike Malone and in 1919 sold the store to him, which became Malone’s Department Store, a familiar fixture on Lincoln Highway for generations of shoppers.

The story of Lewis McEwen’s death was a sad commentary on our harsh winters. It seems he owned a farm southwest of DeKalb and often took the Great Western train to a spot near the farm and would hop off and walk the rest of the way home. One stormy winter day in 1905, he tried reaching his farm on foot and was found frozen to death the next day from exposure to the elements.

There is also a Hopkins family plot. Dr. Rufus Hopkins, who originally sold the five acres for $175 to start the cemetery, is not buried there but his mother and brothers are. His nephew, Jacob, donated the land where Hopkins Park is now located on Route 23.

An unusual stone that resembles a small tree trunk marks the grave site of 10-year-old Bernie Flinn. Atop the trunk is a straw hat carved in stone and the inscription below reads: “Is Bernie waiting for us?”
Back in the southwest corner is a family plot once owned by Joseph F. Glidden, inventor of barbed wire. But his widow decided to purchase lots at Fairview Cemetery, located on South First Street, so the plot was sold to another family, now buried there. There are many more stories, but to hear them in person you may want to sign up for the planned fall walking tour.

Bigolin referred to an article in a past issue of Victorian Homes magazine which told about the 19th century tradition of holding family picnics and Sunday gatherings near a loved one’s grave. This was considered part of the mourning process, since so many people died of disease and epidemics in those times. Some even bought family plots in advance and visited them regularly in their Sunday best, bringing along a picnic lunch. For many, it was an all-day journey as many cemeteries were located miles from town and in the horse and buggy era, it took most of a day to make the round trip.

Bigolin’s long-standing involvement in local history landed him a job last year when the township employed him to help locate, document and photograph individual grave sites and markers. He has already taken 512 digital photos to accompany his written descriptions and said there are some 500 more to be done. Then he faces the same task all over again at Evergreen Cemetery.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115