06 September 2011

Tombstone Tuesday – The Tree That Will Last Forever

Those of us who love genealogy often have a fascination for cemeteries. People who don’t get into genealogy think we’re just crazy…I know. However, one of my dad’s relatives, Edna Beightler McClelland shared with me once, as we talked about my childhood memories of their home in Mahomet, IL and the Civil War era cemetery across the street from their house, that she remembered riding in the wagon on Sundays to picnic in a large cemetery with her family. And I know many non-Caucasian families that honor their dead by decorating the graves of their loved ones, spending copious amounts of time in the cemetery.

The odd part is that as I was growing up, we had no cemeteries to visit. Neither of my parents had relatives that were buried in close enough proximity for us to visit. My father’s father was buried in Montreal, Canada and my mother’s father in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  So, my love of cemeteries and all things ‘old’ predates any connection I had with history, genealogy or archival sciences. But any chance I got to go into a cemetery, I would. There was, and still is, a fascination I have for them that is almost physical…there are times I feel truly drawn in.

Truth be told, I have several very happy memories that involve cemeteries. The above mentioned childhood romps through the weeds growing up and around the tombstones in the old cemetery in Mahomet is one. I should point out, on more than one occasion I got yelled at by adults to watch for snakes; this did not deter me at all.

The next is a more bittersweet memory. On a family trip to Toronto for a wedding, my husband and I brought our two nieces, Krystine and Nichole with us, and rather than going through Detroit, as we had in the past, we went north and crossed the border from Lansing into Sarnia. I had wanted to stop there, as I’d found a wonderful letter my gggrandmother had written to my great-grandfather in the early 1880s, indicating that on his trip from Toronto he should stop in Sarnia. This unlocked a large, full branch of our family tree, many of whom were buried in a small, private cemetery in Sarnia. The four of us stayed overnight in Sarnia, and after a short drive, located the cemetery. It was a cold, lovely morning, and the two girls, young teenagers, were none too pleased about stopping at the cemetery. But wise Auntie Laura pulled out the big guns: I offered $5 to whoever found the first headstone I was looking for! LOL. Amazing what motivates teenagers. It’s an awesome memory, that opens many more…they’ll have to wait for another post. It’s bittersweet because Krystine died in 2006 just after her 25th birthday; again, a story for another day.

What about the tombstone, Laura? Well, these are not tombstones from MY family, but rather tombstones I found in a local cemetery that caught my interest, and my heart. There is a small town about 20 miles from where I live named Elburn. I became familiar with Elburn because they have a very large John Deere dealership, and my lawn tractor needed parts. We’d only been in our house a year, and hadn’t had the opportunity or inclination to head that direction. I had to have the parts, so we hopped in the car and off we went. As we got to the main intersection just to the south of this small town, I saw a very large, old cemetery, which is now the Blackberry Township Cemetery. My husband’s first words, “No, we’re not stopping.” And we didn’t.

However, I went back. I was in college at the time, studying Art History at the University of Illinois – Chicago, and I was in the midst of a very challenging art class. We had to find an object that was inanimate that resembled an animate object and I found my subject in the middle of the cemetery! There it was, this beautiful monument, built in the shape of an old tree. It really spoke to me, and so I spent many hours over the next few months sitting in the cemetery, using different materials to draw the monument.

The coolest part? Five years later, I get the honor and joy of processing the Elburn Historical Society’s material as an Archivist!! I’ve since learned that the little boy buried under this monument was the first to be buried in the cemetery in 1860. What’s more, the cemetery’s management moved from a private group to Blackberry Township, and they have done an incredible job of surveying, indexing and clarifying who is buried in the cemetery and utilizing technology so that the information will one day be available online. I have processed additional private burial records which are available upon request to the Town & Countryside Library in Elburn.

I hope that you can appreciate now how my work as an Archivist plays a role in my future as a Genealogist. More importantly, it’s one thing to find the branches and leaves on your family tree, but what do you do with all the material once you’ve found it? (As an aside, please don’t say the word ‘scrapbook’…it’s like nails on a chalkboard to most Archivists) I hope that I will be able to teach you the best practices for arranging, describing and making the material available and organizing it in a way that it will be ready to pass down to the next generation or on to a repository that will be willing to add it to their collections. I’m so very lucky to love the work I do!!

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