New book digs deep into stories about Elgin’s cemeteries
By Janelle Walker For The Courier-News August 30, 2012 9:36PM
Steve Stroud stands next to a memorial stone in the shape of a log cabin that was built as a replica of pioneer Benjamin Burritt's 1837 cabin located in Hanover Township. The memorial, located at Bluff City Cemetery, was one of the stones that was moved from the old Channing Street Cemetery. Stroud wrote a book on the history of Elgin Cemeteries. August 21, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 1, 2012 3:16PM
ELGIN — Steve Stroud knows where the bodies were buried, and maybe still are.
The local historian’s new book contains details such as why a Google map photo of the Channing School property’s grassy area still shows some faint rectangular shapes.
It’s likely due to the fact that, until about 1906, the school grounds were home to one of Elgin’s first two cemeteries.
“Most people have no concept of what it was, or how big it was,” Stroud said in an interview.
His book contains a detailed look at Elgin’s cemeteries — old and new — including two east-side graveyards that were later closed and whose inhabitants were moved to new locations.
The book will be released shortly before the annual Elgin Cemetery Walk, set for 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Bluff City Cemetery. A program of the Elgin Area Historical Society, the walk is now in its 25th year.
Elgin has a complicated history with its cemeteries. Two successive city graveyards were closed, and instead of gating off the property and opening a new cemetery, remains were dug up and reburied, Stroud said.
However, not all of the remains were moved. In fact, when additions were made at Channing Elementary in 1998, at least eight caskets and two sets of remains were unearthed there, according to Courier-News stories at the time.
Stroud’s interest in cemeteries started as a young boy. His father passed away when Stroud, 69, was just 8 years old. His mother would often take the family to visit the grave and would turn the trips into a scavenger hunt — looking for interesting markers, unusual names and gravestone inscriptions.
As an adult, Stroud has visited cemeteries in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Paris.
As co-chairman of the cemetery walk with his wife, Stroud decided to follow books he has written on Elgin houses with a book on its cemeteries. He has pored over decaying record books, learning about Elgin through its deceased residents and how the city has treated them over the years.
Elgin’s first cemetery was at Division and Chapel streets, and records indicate it was the size of about two football fields, Stroud said. The first burial in that cemetery, according to the records he has, was in 1836. That property was the home of Elgin’s only cemetery — called the Burying Grounds — until 1850.
However, homes started popping up around the cemetery, and Elgin leaders decided to close the property and move to a new, bigger cemetery on what is now the Channing School property, Stroud said.
Stroud said he is unsure, based on the records available, how many of the Burying Grounds remains were moved to the new site. At least 30 sets of remains were unclaimed by families, and records say the city did move 30 sets. “Most were moved to the Channing site,” he said.
Tombstones still can be found at Division and Chapel, behind the “Butterman house,” Stroud said.
The Channing site, called the Elgin City Cemetery, officially operated from 1844 to 1889 but had burials as recently as 1906.
An estimated 5,000 remains were buried there. As the city continued to grow, houses again were built, and the land looked attractive as a community park, Stroud said.
But families had plots there and wanted to be buried at Channing, even as the cemetery was moving remains out.
“People were being buried at Channing as others were being disinterred” to be reburied at Bluff City Cemetery, Stroud said.
The records he has found have indicated just fewer than 3,000 of those buried at Channing were moved, at family expense and when families were found. “Families moved away, or families died out,” Stroud said. “Tombstones had fallen over, and no one knew who was buried there,” he said of the unclaimed remains.
Nor were bodies buried in concrete vaults as they are today but in simple wooden caskets. There may not have been much left to move, he said.
“Several hundred remains might still be there,” Stroud said.
Looking through the death records that are available from the Channing cemetery has been instructive. It gives not just names of the dead but often what they died of, where they were born, parent names, and general location of the burial, he said.
He found one woman who died at the age of 88. The death record says she was a slave until she was 65 years old. Other records show when the deceased was a Civil War veteran or that they were a resident at the local mental health hospital.
Stroud said there is a wealth of information in the record books for genealogical research and he would love to see those records digitized. That might be a job for an intern someday, he said.