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Dead come alive in their stories at 26th annual Elgin Cemetery Walk

Visitors learn about past during ElgHistorical Society's 26th annual Cemetery Walk Bluff City Cemetery ElgSunday. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media

Visitors learn about the past during the Elgin Historical Society's 26th annual Cemetery Walk at Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin on Sunday. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 24, 2013 6:30AM

ELGIN — A huge crowd came to Bluff City Cemetery on Sunday afternoon to learn about a few of the approximately 11,000 souls for whom the cemetery is their final resting place.

“During the walk’s 25th anniversary last year, we had 600 visitors,” said Laura Stroud of Elgin, who with Steve Stroud has co-chaired the event since 2008. “We have had close to 200 come for the walk during the first half-hour today.” A total of 573 attended Sunday’s event.

Rick Ellis portrayed Levi Tennant. Ellis said that Tennant was born into slavery in Alabama and joined the Union forces in 1864 in the 106th United States Colored Troops. He came to Elgin after the war and died of pneumonia at age 36.

Linda Rock portrayed Mary Elizabeth Stewart, who was born in 1846. Stewart was on the Chicago Street Bridge on July 4, 1869, to watch a boat race with 180 other people when the bridge collapsed. One man and one horse died as a result of the collapse.

Rock said the Chicago Street Bridge has quite a history. It was first built of wood in 1837 and replaced with another wooden bridge in 1849. The iron bridge that replaced the wooden bridge collapsed when 90 head of cattle were crossing it. Rock said butchers were called to take care of the cattle on site. Stewart lived to the age of 88. She was alive when the bridge collapsed one more time in 1881.

Other notable deceased Elgin residents who were portrayed Sunday included Edward Szula; former slave Polly Rutland; Louis Blum, owner of Blum’s Ice Cream and Homemade Candies in Elgin; and Annie Tallent, the first white female to enter the Black Hills in the Dakota Territories.

‘Moving’ stories

The story of Bluff City Cemetery itself also was told Sunday.

One of those helping tell that story was Steve Stroud, who is the author of many books: “Silent City: A History of Elgin City Cemeteries” and three volumes of “There Used to Be: A Look Back at Elgin’s Architectural Heritage.” He said his upcoming book will be about bungalows.

There were two cemeteries that preceded Bluff City Cemetery, 945 Bluff City Blvd. The original cemetery at Division and Chapel streets is now a residential area. The cemetery that replaced the original cemetery is now the site of Channing Elementary School.

“There were 7,200 people buried at Channing Cemetery,” Steve said. “They moved 3,500 of them to this cemetery. A lot were left behind.”

Elgin resident Paul Larson said his family roots in Elgin go back to 1871. As a teenager, he used to help mow the grass at the cemetery. This year marks his second year as volunteer cemetery guide.

“Bluff City Cemetery opened in 1889,” Larson said. “The cemetery is about 90 acres. Bluff Spring Fen that adjoins the cemetery is approximately 100 acres. It features a variety of habitats including prairie, savanna, wetlands and woodlands. More than 450 plant species, 57 butterfly species, more than 20 dragonfly species, and almost 100 bird species, including 33 nesting, have been recorded at the fen.”

Each time a new cemetery opened to replace an overcrowded one in Elgin, relatives of the deceased were asked to relocate the bodies to the new cemetery. Larson said that cemeteries were located outside of populated areas. Bluff City Cemetery was originally a horse farm.

South Elgin resident Ruth Behm attended the walk on Sunday. She said she grew up along Wright Avenue in Elgin.

“As kids, we used to ride our bikes through the cemetery,” Behm said. “There used to be a monuments manufacturer across the street from the cemetery. We used to watch the workers doing engraving.”

Parts of the cemetery were set aside for certain groups. For example, there is a common burial ground that was used for former Channing Cemetery deceased who had no identification. Approximately 30 infants who died during an influenza epidemic during the early 1930s can be found buried in another spot.

There is a section of the cemetery that contains graves of the military who served from the Civil War until the present. The first military women buried in this section are Women’s Army Corps Sgt. Myrtle Alice Jahns, who died in 1973, and Hazel Peters, who served in the U.S. Army and died in 1974.

On Memorial Day, the cemetery is decorated with 500 American flags to honor the war dead.

Gravers and zinkers

Bartlett resident Sue Novak and Mount Prospect resident Sherry Grobe are “gravers.” They volunteer to photograph tombstones for people who want to determine their genealogy.

Grobe said she is always interested when she finds the white bronze monuments known as “zinkers.” The American White Bronze Co. in Chicago once manufactured zinkers.

“They were standard issue monuments made of metal,” Grobe said. “They were made in the late 1880s. By the turn of the century, they went out of fashion. Cemeteries did not originally want them because people thought they would not hold up against the elements. Today, the zinkers are some of the most easily read. They held up well.”

Zinkers have a bluish color and are hollow inside. Grobe said that during Prohibition, zinkers were supposedly used for stashing liquor.

Larson showed attendees the type of monument known as a sarcophagus coffin. He said the acid stone eventually consumes the body buried inside it.

The work of all those helping present the cemetery walk was recognized Sunday.

“There are 75 non-paid volunteers here,” said Laura Stroud, a retired nurse. “Some come every year. We are so appreciative of their help and support. Elizabeth Marston, museum director at Elgin Area Historical Society, has offered invaluable help.”

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