Female graves in Oakwood Cemetery

Macomb’s Oakwood Cemetery is our area’s most historic burial site, featuring a variety of notable features including graves dedicated to Civil War soldiers (about 300 of them), veterans from half a dozen other wars, Underground Railroad conductors, community leaders, social activists, and notorious WIU figures, among others. And as I know from writing my book “Here to Stay: Reflections on the Dead in a Small-Town Cemetery” (2012), Oakwood also has an interesting variety of headstones.

May is a particularly pleasant month to plan a visit, especially because the grounds are well maintained, the cemetery has many trees that come out in the spring, and a multitude of graves are decorated by loved ones at the end of the month, for the week of the Memorial Day. -to finish.

This year, on Saturday, May 28, I will also be leading a tour of the older section of Oakwood, located between North Randolph Street and Route 67, which begins at 2:00 a.m. (This is a LIFE tour, so please call 298-1911 if you wish to participate.) It will highlight a variety of burial sites that reflect aspects of the female experience of yore. generations, as well as some remarkable women to remember.

One of them was Mary Clarke (always called “Polly”), who was born in South Carolina, in 1798. She was 19 when she married James Clarke, and in 1830 they moved to what eventually became Macomb – when only two other families had settled here. He ran the first tavern, sat on the first county council and became a judge. Of course, little is known about Polly, but her obituary mentions that she was “highly respected by a wide circle of acquaintances”. We also know that she suffered a host of tragedies, as of her eleven children, only four survived her. But the city really embraced Polly, as well as her husband. When she died in 1879, she was an icon of pioneering experience.

Another ancient woman lived even longer. Adeline Wilson was born in 1810 and raised in Lebanon, Kentucky, the eleventh of 23 children born to her father’s two successive wives. She married John Wilson in 1829, and they moved to a farm near Macomb in 1833, but soon moved again, to South Lafayette Street. John Wilson was a successful businessman and civil servant – who became, in effect, Macomb’s first mayor, in 1856. And she was a popular, outgoing figure, who loved Macomb. He died in 1880, but Adeline lived to the astonishing age of 101 and was celebrated by all the townspeople as “Grandmother Wilson.” No one’s life was more known to local residents. She is a fine example of deep belonging.

Another notable woman was Matilda Jane Randolph, who was born in Virginia in 1819 and came to Macomb with her parents in 1834. They lived in a log cabin on the site where she and her husband William are buried. Indeed, they were also married at this very spot, in 1837. As also suggested, Jane (as she was known) was surely the originator of the plan for a cemetery in Macomb, which was laid out in 1857. She was unable to bear children, but she raised several nieces and nephews who had lost their parents. As many locals know, William was a successful businessman and civil servant, who built the spectacular Randolph House Hotel in 1857. And after his assassination in 1864, Jane managed it and Oakwood Cemetery . She was Macomb’s first prominent businesswoman, who died in 1907 aged 88.

Hannah (Dean) Bailey was a committed career woman who reportedly had “a head full of new ideas and a real gift for teaching”. Born in Connecticut in 1820, she came to Illinois in the 1840s and taught at both McDonough College and nearby country schools. After pioneering store owner and state legislator William Bailey lost his first wife in 1858, he married Hannah, who raised his stepchildren but also continued to teach. Thus, she exemplified the revolutionary combination of the role of a wife and a professional career. Hannah was also a long-lived – until 1911, when she died aged 91 – and she always promoted the crucial importance of education.

The tour will also visit various other burial sites, including those of Josie Westfall (1873-1941), who was the matron of the McDonough County Orphanage for thirty years; Ruth Tunnicliff (1876-1946), a crusading bacteriologist who moved to Chicago, identified the cause of measles and developed the first serum to prevent the disease; Clara Bayliss (1848-1948), who was an outspoken social activist and became a groundbreaking author of children’s books about Native Americans; and Mary Ewing (1906-2001), whom many of us remember, and who was an activist for a wide variety of civic and social causes.

I have studied cemeteries and their meaning for many years, and I believe in their importance to us. As Keith Eggener says in his book, “Cemeteries” (2010), “They offer summaries of lives lived and speak of community.” Or, as Thomas Lynch says in “The Undertaking” (2009), they connect our lives to those who died, who were “once our neighbors”, and if we remain aware of these people, they become “neighbors” again. That is to say, they are part of our cultural consciousness here. And they should be.

Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.