Macomb marks Oakwood Cemetery historic site recognition

MACOMB — The city’s historic Oakwood Cemetery has received state historic site recognition  after a number of years of planning and petitioning by Friends of Oakwood Cemetery. Friday morning a bronzed sign detailing the importance of the cemetery, along with a plaque commemorating key sponsors of the project, was unveiled at a site on North Randolph Street across from Cemetery Sexton Gary Rhoads’ office.
The cemetery is notable for many reasons, although from the historical perspective the cemetery contains the graves of soldiers dating back to War of 1812 as well as the sites of two families who operated as Underground Railroad conductors — the Allisons and Blazers. The Allisons and Blazers helped bring over 200 slaves to freedom in the north.
Former Mayor Tom Carper noted the significance of the historical marker dedication occurring the year of the state’s bicentennial, and recognized Rhoads for his work because the  marker was well-placed in a location of reverence.
Carper also praised Rhoads and cemetery crew members for their continued efforts to maintain the grounds and respect the monuments.
“Thanks to you and your crew…you do an unbelievable job,” Carper said.
He also thanked Engraving by Lin for last-minute assistance with the marker.
Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said the entire process of receiving the historical designation and acquisition and placement of the marker has been a “collaborative effort.”
“We here in Macomb appreciate the heritage that we have in this community,” he said. “This is one of those additional sentiments of that.”  
As noted by local historian and professor emeritus John Hallwas at the ceremony, there are 270 Civil War veterans buried at Oakwood, along with War of 1812 veterans and those from major wars leading up to present day.
“As so many people realize, recognizing and appreciating historic sites is an important means of fostering community,” Hallwas said.
“And that’s especially crucial today, when the sense of community is fading in so many places — and thus, lack of belonging is also on the rise.”
When referencing the number of Civil War veterans at the cemetery, Hallwas said: “No other small-town cemetery in our region has more than 270 Civil War veterans buried in it. Why? Why did so many men who saved our country from both slavery and disunity want to be buried here? Because Macomb’s profound sense of community was opposed to forgetfulness — especially of such military heroes. And for decades, we had the most elaborate, popular Decoration Day ceremony of any town in the region — and I’ve checked on that. A town of 2,000 people in the 19th century, Macomb often had 6,000 people here for the Decoration Day ceremony…”
Hallwas — who recently received the Illinois State Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award — recognized former Macomb Mayor Tom Carper and his wife, City Alderwoman Gayle Carper for their taking the lead in financing the cost of the sign. Other financial supporters include Hallwas and his wife, Garnette; Kathy Nichols, Garry and Marilyn Johnson, Citizens Bank, Friends of Oakwood, Macomb Lions Club and City of Macomb.
Illinois State Historical Society Executive Director William Furry said cemeteries are “cities of the dead.” He also noted the Macomb marker dedication is the first of five the historical society will conduct this year.
For Furry, the idea behind a historical marker is “community activism.” “Letting people know what their history is and getting them to be inspired by their local history. Acts of putting historical markers up brings community together, and use it as a focal point for doing programs for students and for seniors and any tourists who come through. You want to focus on it. Bring it here, and give them something to look at and interpret.”
Furry also said history is something that brings communities together worldwide, whether it’s a cemetery or a historic building for examples. “These things are what ties communities together and gives them stories to tell. There are so many stories here and stories yet to come that haven’t been told yet. That’s where the inspiration is…so they can draw inspiration from this…” For Oakwood Cemetery, Furry said it’s not just the historic nature of the area, but the fact that it is considered hallowed ground.
“That’s why Black Hawk came back to Illinois in 1832…It’s where his ancestors were…It’s not about development…This is a site where stories can be told. And we need people to tell those stories to future generations.”
According to the Illinois State Historical Society’s website: “The Illinois State Historical Society was founded in 1899 to support the Illinois State Historical Library and to encourage research and writing on subjects of Illinois history. Though independent of the State of Illinois and the Historical Library since 1997, the Illinois State Historical Society continues to actively promote the study of Illinois history. The Society encourages everyone from University scholars to local historians to take an active part in Illinois history. The Society is a not-for-profit organization which depends solely on membership dues, gifts, bequests, and foundation grants to support, preserve, and disseminate the story of Illinois and its people.
The mission of the Society is to foster awareness, understanding, research, preservation, and recognition of history in Illinois.

More information about the Illinois State Historical Society can be found online at: http://www.historyillinois.org

Reach Jared DuBach by email at jdubach@mcdonoughvoice.com.