Digging Up the Dead | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Digging Up the Dead 

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When developers announced plans in 1998 to build a mall on a 75-acre soybean field at U.S. 12 and Long Grove Road, local residents tried to block the plan. Old-timers remembered that there had once been a small cemetery on the old Deer Park farmstead, although the gravestones had been removed decades before and the land plowed under.

The cemetery was marked on the old plats, says M. Catherine Bird, research coordinator at Midwest Archaeological Research Services in Harvard, the company that was retained by the developers to ensure the project squared with the provisions of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. After walking the property with a team of researchers, "We found some isolated prehistoric pieces but nothing out of the ordinary," says Bird. "There have been other instances where cemeteries show up on maps and there aren't any actual graves there. So what we did after that was bring in a backhoe and scrape off the plow zone"--about a foot and a half of topsoil. "We wanted to look under it and see if there were any rectangular-shaped soil discolorations," she says. There were, and Bird and her researchers eventually found ten grave shafts.

The graves held the remains of four adults and six children, but beyond that the bones were unidentifiable. "Bones just don't stay together that well when there's no muscle tissue or skin to hold them together," says Bird. "The skull isn't one solid bone--there are a number of different plates. When people are buried in a casket there's a lot of space around them. When you put dirt on top and time goes by, the coffin often collapses onto the skeleton."

She determined that the approximate years of death were between 1840 and 1880 by comparing the disintegrating caskets with old trade catalogs and newsletters at the National Funeral Directors' reference library in Brookfield, Wisconsin. County records showed that the land had once been owned by Abraham Vandaworker, who came to the area from New York in 1835. "Before Vandaworker died he deeded the one-acre cemetery to the Methodist church at Fairfield," Bird says. The deed mandated that the property was to be held "by these trustees and their survivors...for a family burial ground...and no other purpose."

"Then the church burned down," says Bird. Its own records were lost, and the property was transferred to the control of the Northern Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church. But because the records were gone, the larger organization didn't realize they were responsible for the cemetery.

To find out who the people were, Bird tracked down a family Bible mentioned in Vandaworker's probate record. "At that time you didn't have to get a death certificate or a birth certificate," she says. "It's only through using census records and probate or family Bibles that you get that sort of information."

Someone from the Historical Society of Long Grove, which was opposed to the development, put Bird in touch with Vandaworker's descendants, who are scattered across the U.S. (The HSLG also offered to landscape and take care of the cemetery in perpetuity, an offer declined by the Methodist Church.) "I told one of them the family Bible existed," she says. "He checked around and found it. Through analysis we were able to match up names to remains."

Keith Wein, Vandaworker's great-great-grandson and an amateur genealogist, says he knew his relatives came here in 1835. "But I knew nothing about how they died or where they were buried. I knew nothing about the farm."

By the time Wein was contacted last summer, the Methodist Church had already decided (against local opposition and Bird's recommendation) to go through with the sale and move the remains to a cemetery three miles away. Today a parking lot sits on the old family plot.

Wein is bitter that the family wasn't given any say in the matter. "Legally they should have stayed where they were but they went ahead and moved them anyway. There have been instances, like at the Kraft Foods factory [in Northbrook], where there was a family cemetery on the grounds and it went to court and Kraft was required to contact all of the descendants before they disturbed anyone. There were about 5,000 of them. So they built around it.

"I had to fight for individual reburials," he adds. "They were going to put them all in a little bag and put them in the ground."

Last September about 30 people--including Bird, Wein, a Methodist minister, and a flock of Vandaworker descendants--attended the reburial ceremony cohosted by Wein's minister son. Despite the rough treatment, Wein says he's glad to have had the opportunity to learn about his ancestors. "Dr. Bird's report described the hard lives they led. They had arthritic problems. The lady they found had a bad back, subject to hard labor. They became human beings rather than just statistics."

Bird will give a free slide lecture called "Archaeology of the Genealogy of a Local Family Cemetery" on Saturday at 1:30 in room North 10 on the fourth floor of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. Call 773-725-1306 for more information.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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