Over the last four summers, the McDonough County Historical Society has sought to locate and mark each of the cemeteries in our county with a new sign. At one point in the 1980s, Libby Grimm, Marge Harris, and Dwayne Lester identified over 120 cemeteries or burial sites within McDonough County.
Our goal is to reclaim, restore, and return respect to these resting places of our ancestors, forebears, or community leaders. It is already obvious, as a result of our search for some of these remote and isolated places, that the cemeteries or grave sites have become totally abandoned, neglected, and in some cases destroyed.
When a cemetery is desecrated (a violation of Illinois statutes), we lose a component of our history and culture. We also make a negative statement about our humanity and civility.
We can be proud of many of our neighbors who have volunteered to clean up and repair a neglected cemetery. And we thank a large number of individuals and businesses who have supported the 75 signs installed at these repositories of local history, art, architecture, demographics, and family life.
Now I am sending out a call for help to solve a cemetery mystery.
I had been searching for two years to find the Vawter Cemetery in Bethel Township. The first burial was Earley Vawter in 1835. Sebastian Hoover, a veteran of the War of 1812, was buried there in 1839. The last funeral was in 1920.
I eventually learned the name of the property owner where this cemetery is located. Alvin Curtis, who as a lad of four years old attended that last funeral in 1920, owns the property. He enthusiastically agreed to take me to the Vawter Cemetery.
Alvin no longer farms the surrounding land, but he vividly remembers approximately 25 large and beautiful headstones in an acre of fenced land with concrete posts and barbed wire.
Last week we parked as close as we could. Just before climbing over fences and trekking across dense brush, weeds, and thorn bushes, a nearby neighbor warned us that two years ago he spotted three pickup trucks driving away from the cemetery area. When he went out to the cemetery, all of the headstones had been removed.
Alvin was devastated at this bad news. But wanting to see for himself, he led me for 30 minutes through the nastiest, thickest, tallest field of weeds that I’ve ever experienced.
We found the “cemetery,” or what was once a cemetery. The posts and wire fence are still there. The gate has been removed. Under fallen timber and forest debris, we did find three small foot stones with mere initials carved into them. But all of the 25 family and historic headstones had been removed.
Next summer the MCHS will install one of its signs marking the Vawter Cemetery. But before that happens, I ask all of you to help solve the mystery of the missing memorials to our ancestors resting there.
If you have any clues to who removed the headstones and/or why, please report your information to the McDonough County Sheriff’s office (309/833-2323), or give me a call: Gil Belles, 309/837-9441, AG-Belles@wiu.edu