Oakwood Cemetery marks 125 years
By TESA CULLI
MT. VERNON - Oakwood Cemetery will be holding its annual Memorial Day drive through and
its 125 year anniversary.
"Oakwood is now the largest cemetery in Jefferson County," a history of the cemetery
states. "We have more trees than probably all of the other cemeteries in the county
combined and we plant approximately 20 new trees per year to replace those that die or
are damaged by storms. We have over five miles of roads, more than 10,000 burials and
almost 9,000 markers. We mow the entire cemetery about 35 times a year for a total of
1,600 acres and dispose of leaves about for times a year for a total of 180 acres."
The history of the cemetery was originally compiled by Joe Boyle, according to Dee Hercules,
cemetery secretary/treasurer. This year, the history was updated by John Howard, a member of
the cemetery board.
For those who are searching genealogies and local history, Oakwood Cemetery staff have worked
to help find grave sites.
"We have prepared a brochure and a map of a lot of the cemetery with most of the historical
people who are here," Hercules said. "Using the map, you can get right to the ones you are
Oakwood Cemetery board members are president Tom Wielt, John Howard, Sylvia Howard,
Judy Myers, Gino Federici, Mike Walker, Tami Cralley, Kathleen McMurrin and Richard Briesacher.
The cemetery didn't have a smooth beginning, and it was the death of a toddler by the name
of Watson whose burial was the first in Oakwood Cemetery.
"On Oct. 7, 1875, a child less than 2-years-old, Frank W. Watson, died and was buried in
the Broadway location under cover of darkness, thereby starting a cemetery," the official
history states. "The city would not recognize the place as a cemetery until it was deeded
to Oakwood (on) July 26, 1883."
The history of the cemetery tells of the early days of the cemetery, the city, and changes
which have happened through present times:
For those who are searching genealogies and local history, Oakwood Cemetery staff have
worked to help find grave sites.
"According to local legend in the 1870s, the boundaries of the city of Mt. Vernon, Ill.,
were the present 18th Street on the west, Oakland Avenue on the north, the Chicago &
Eastern Railroad on the east and Forrest Avenue on the south. There was no cemetery
within the city limits. North of Mt. Vernon - now 27th Street and Old Union Road -
was located the Old Union Cemetery; south of the city, at the northeast corner of what
is now Bethel Cemetery, was Pace Cemetery, both of them situated on dirt roads and
difficult to reach in bad weather.
"In the early 1870s, two Mt. Vernon businessmen, Samuel H. Watson and Van Wilbanks,
owned land on the north side of what is now Broadway, west of what is not 22nd Street,
consisting of 56.89 acres. They offered this property to the city of Mt. Vernon for a cemetery.
Their gift was declined by the city fathers for the reason that the site was too far from the city."
The first directors of the cemetery were G.F.M Ward and John Rackaway.
"The grave of Frank W. Watson is located one street west of the octagonal building, on
the southeast corner of the cross streets. About 1980, a small monument, buried at that
site, was discovered and reset on a concrete base, once again a permanent marker.
"The first section of Oakwood Cemetery to be platted contained 20 acres. The sexton
lived, rent free, on a farmhouse on the land. His duties consisted of the care of the
cemetery. Since the original plat, five new sections have been opened and there is still
ground for further expansion.
"Some 40 or 50 years after the first plat, L.L. Emmerson, a future governor of Illinois,
and as director of the Albion Brick Company of Albion, furnished the brick to pave the
two entrances to the cemetery, north a distance of three blocks to and around the octagonal
building, west to the Veterans Circle, and two blocks to the east of the building. This is
one of the two brick streets remaining in Mt. Vernon.
"During the 1920s, the cemetery's records were lost in a fire, which destroyed the farm
house. A full-time sexton was employed to maintain the cemetery, dig the graves by hand,
and keep the grass mowed and the leaves raked.
"In the early 1920s, the Third National Bank, located at the southwest corner of the
intersection of 10th Street and Main Street, undertook a major remodeling project which
involved doubling the size of their first floor banking quarters and moving the entrance
from the northeast corner of the building to the middle of its east end. Two or three of
the directors of the bank were also trustees of Oakwood Cemetery. One of the pillars on
either side of the former front door was moved to the cemetery and placed in the center
of Johnson Circle west of the octagonal building to make a veterans memorial. A bronze
plaque dedicated the memorial to veterans of all wars.
"In 1946, Oakwood was reorganized as the Mt. Vernon Oakwood Cemetery Association and the
proper Internal Revenue Service 501(c)3 designation was obtained to provide tax exempt
status for donors.
"During the 1980s, a bronze eagle was placed on top of the column, a concrete curb was
installed around the circle and three aluminum flag poles were installed within the circle.
From them now fly the American flag, the State of Illinois flag, and the POW-MIA (Prisoner
of War-Missing In Action) flag lighted so they can be displayed at night.
"A trustee located a replica of a Civil War 6-pound cannon; a concrete pad was installed
and the cannon, since rebuilt as a project of Civil War reenactors, stands in the circle.
"In the 1970s, a backhoe was purchased, along with a truck and power lawnmowers. Now,
with mechanical leafblowers, the cemetery is maintained in a modern manner.
"Many prominent citizens of Mt. Vernon and Jefferson County, in addition to founders Watson
and Wilbanks and trustees Ward and Rackaway ... are buried in Oakwood. A few are W.C. Arthurs,
president of the Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co.; James W. Pace, first mayor of Mt. Vernon;
C. W. Pavey and W. B Anderson, Civil War generals; L.L. Emmerson, Governor of Illinois; ...
Dr. Andy Hall, former mayor of Mt. Vernon and American Medical Association practitioner of
the year in 1949; John Wall, local historian; Lewis Brake, National Commander of the Veterans
of World War I; and Clyde Lee, a prominent insurance agent, trotting horseman, state
representative and state senator.
"A recent count shows 47 Civil War Union soldiers and four Confederate soldiers buried in
our cemetery. Legend has it that Confederate monuments have pointed tops so that Union
soldiers could not sit on them.
"In the early 1980s, the last of the businessmen on the 1946 board had passed away and the
cemetery was experiencing serious financial problems, leading to failures in the maintenance
program, including mowing and leaf disposal. In February 1982, a new board of trustees was
installed, with Robert G. Metcalf as president. He and several of the other directors had
extensive experience in various aspects of the construction industry and worked together
to update our groundskeeping activities."
The public now receives a twice-a-year letter which is issued at Memorial Day and prior
to Christmas. The cemetery is now operated with an endowment fund and the rest of the income
is generated through donations, lot sales and grave openings. There are three full-time
employees and community service workers also have been used to help maintain the grounds.
Veterans Circle at Oakwood Cemetery took years to become the veterans memorial that can be
viewed today. The pillars of the memorial were donated by Third National Bank in the 1920s
to begin building of the area. A bronze plaque was added, and then during the 1980s, a bronze
eagle was placed on top of the column, a concrete curb was installed around the circle and
three aluminum flag poles were installed within the circle. A replica of a Civil War 6-pound
cannon was found by a trustee of the cemetery and it has been rebuilt by area Civil War
reenactors. TESA CULLI/REGISTER-NEWS/