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Local history is buried in downtown Downers Grove

Jim Dohren showing an aging tombstone. Photo by Brian Slodysko.

Jim Dohren showing an aging tombstone. Photo by Brian Slodysko.

Pierce Downer, the founder of Downers Grove, is not buried in the Main Street cemetery. But he wanted to be.

Just like most of the village’s prominent early citizens, Downer planned to be interred in the dirt alongside monuments engraved with names that now adorn many area street signs.

“It’s like a history book or index of a who’s-who in our town,” said Jim Dohren, a Downers Grove historical society board member and former middle school teacher.

Blodgetts, Beldens and Blanchards are all buried here with upwards of 100 other early settlers and townsfolk – from farmers and blacksmiths, to socialites and civil war veterans.

In the latter case, local residents fought to keep the body of Sgt. Isrel Blackburn – a freed slave and village blacksmith who fought for the Union Army during the civil war – from finding a final place of rest there in 1902.  Though Blackburn was a respected local resident, some still had qualms over burying a black person in an otherwise white cemetery, Dohren said.

“His friends went to bat for him, but (his grave) was pretty much a compromise because they buried him in the corner,” said Dohren, referring to Blackburn’s grave, which sits in the cemetery’s far northwest corner. (Photos of cemetery)

Designated in 1856 out of a portion of a sheep pasture owned by Samuel Curtiss, the initial idea for the cemetery came from general store owner Henry Carpenter, who frequently took to standing around a stove at a nearby Methodist church to chew the fat with others. At the time the future location of the cemetery was the site of two children’s graves.

“It made him feel so sad to see the two graves so lonely, and he felt the village really ought to have a proper cemetery,” said local historian, writer and historical society board member, Montrew Dunham.

So Carpenter suggested it be turned to a cemetery and Curtiss set aside the land, collecting $15 for his gift roughly a decade later when a burial association was founded. Family plots were sold for $5.

Both Dohren and Dunham say the cemetery – and other final places of rest – is a key for unlocking local history and an understanding of the hardship faced by settlers to the Illinois prairie.

Take Pierce Downer’s absence from the cemetery, for example.  During the winter of 1863, Downer’s wife Lucy Ann passed away. At the time St. Joseph Creek, which ran through downtown, was too swollen to transport Lucy Ann to the cemetery. So Downer set to work, burying her on a small knoll that was the high point of his property. He died the very next day at the age of 81 – according to legend, while digging her grave.

Both Downer and his wife are still interred in the same small family plot, located behind a house on Linscott Avenue. They rest alongside many relatives, the last of which, Earl Downer, was buried in 1978.

“Late winter is what they called the ‘dying time,’” Dohren said. “Old people and the sick would pass away, their food stocks running low.”

This was before the railroad came steaming through, before the easing of American life and before the boom of the burgeoning American middle class by late century. At the time most people still toiled, farming the dense prairie – of which there was plenty to go around.

Dunham tells of the graves of a farmer husband and wife by the name of Spragg, recent émigrés to Downers Grove who died in 1864 within six months of each other. Both passed away after what is believed to be a bout of either diphtheria or typhoid, leaving their children to the care of townsfolk.

Of the roughly 100 graves in the cemetery, at least 24 are believed to be children under the age of 15.

The Main Street Cemetery is a rare remaining cemetery in a downtown area, Dunham said. Most others were moved or paved over as cities and towns grew to wanting full use of their down towns.

She says the Main Street Cemetery is not the only of its kind in the area, but it is the only one that is kept up. The co-joined Oak Hill and Oak View Cemeteries, located north of Maple Avenue and East of Belmont Road, also date back to a similar era, but have become a focal point of vandals and fell into disrepair.

However, that wasn’t always the case. Since the body of its final soul came to rest in 1938, the Main Street Cemetery went through its own period of disrepair and abuse. Some of the older marble monuments either deteriorated from acid rain or were damaged by hapless vandals.

But then in 1982 the historical society started its restoration effort. Aging marble has in some instances been supplemented with additional granite markers, less prone to deterioration. The lawns are moved. Plant beds are weeded. A vagrant camp was driven from the bushes.

Still, many questions, including the actual number of residents interred in the graveyard, or the identity of an unknown body discovered buried just outside the park’s walls, remain unanswered.

The answer to those questions may be as covered up as the formerly wide-open prairie.

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