Laura Stroud says that ever since she and her husband Steve started organizing the annual Elgin Cemetery Walk 10 years ago, she has dreamed of devoting one entire year's walk to women.
That hasn't quite happened yet. But as the Elgin History Museum holds its 30th annual walk at Bluff City Cemetery Sunday, Sept. 24, half of the ghostly Elginites who will "rise from the grave" courtesy of volunteer actors will be female. And several will be portrayed by "frequent flyers" very familiar to past walkers, such as Linda Rock of Elgin.
Elgin Cemetery WalkWhere: Bluff City Cemetery, 945 Bluff City Blvd., Elgin
When: Walking tours start between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24. The walk takes 90 minutes.
Tickets: $12 in advance; $10 for Elgin History Museum members and seniors over age 65; $15 for nonmembers at the gate; free for children 12 and under. Advance tickets are available at the museum (360 Park St., Elgin), at the Ziegler's Ace Hardware stores in Elgin, or online at www.elginhistory.org.
To get details or reserve a bus ride: (847) 742-4248.
As visitors walk from grave site to grave site, actors who have studied the lives of the people buried below and have dressed as them will give 10-minute presentations about their "memories."
"One year I was a guide. Then for seven years I was co-chair of the whole event and now for 20 years I have been portraying people," Rock said.
This year Rock will portray Laura Davidson Sears, who lived from 1854-1930. Sears is best known to most Elginites because the Sears Art Gallery building at Elgin Academy -- just a few feet away from the history museum itself in the Old Main building -- is named after her.
"Laura's husband was a judge whose father had been principal at Elgin Academy," Rock said. "They never had children themselves, so they put a lot of energy and finances into helping the academy."
Rock said the Searses also owned a lakeside estate named Glen Fern in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It was part of a stretch of homes known as "the Elgin Club" because of all the Watch City socialites who had summer homes there. In fact, Laura actually was buried in Lake Geneva, so there will be no grave at Bluff City for Rock to stand next to as she tells the woman's story.
To find out about her subject's life, Rock said, "Laura and Steve (Stroud) gave a me a lot of information. I have a connection in the academy and was able to get into their archives. And of course I read her obituary" in the Elgin newspapers.
A veteran with even more experience as a cemetery walk actor is August Conte. As he portrays Gilbert Snow, inventor of the self-oiling windmill and founder of the Elgin Wind, Power and Pump Co., which manufactured Elgin Windmills to pump water at farms all over the country, Conte will be acting in his 26th cemetery walk. Last year he portrayed pioneer hotel owner Joseph Pabst. His past roles included grocer August Scheele, millionaire George Lord (his wife Bonnie Conte played Lord's wife Mary) and Walter Hemmens.
Not far behind Conte in experience is Mike Delehoy. Acting for the 18th time, this year he will be early Elgin baker Fred Traub. Last year he portrayed World War I Army Captain James Dangerfield. Other past roles include a sea captain who lived in Elgin.
Rebecca Miller, a young volunteer, premiered in the walk last year by playing the winner of the 1925 Miss Elgin Tournament. This year she will portray Libbie Goll, founder of the Resthaven convalescent home.
The final two 2017 characters will be Civil War General John S. Wilcox, played by veteran actor Andrew Cuming, and his wife, Lois Wilcox, played by second-time performer Babette Colburn.
"John and Lois Wilcox were married, but we're doing them separately because she has a story of her own," Laura Stroud said. "She was a founder of the Elgin Woman's Club that started Sherman Hospital."
"Doing this is fun and educational," Stroud said. "I grew up in Chicago and didn't know anything about Elgin until Steve and I moved here about 25 years ago. I was amazed that this small town, compared to Chicago, had so much going for it."
Stroud said the walks draw about 600 people a year.
Trouble walking? Ride the bus
One change started last year will be repeated: Attendees who have trouble walking (the total tour adds up to almost a mile, including some hills) can ride from grave site to grave site aboard a 16-passenger bus.
"We had heard from people who had attended the cemetery walk for many years but have gotten older and reached the point where they couldn't do it anymore," Stroud said. "But people who have limited mobility and want to use the bus should make a reservation by calling the museum -- (847) 742-4248 -- before Sunday, to make sure we don't have too many people wanting to use the bus at a given time than the bus can handle."
Brand new this year will be a small food court, with edibles offered by Wienerville Hotdogs, Cook's Ice Cream and Mama Lee's Popcorn. And four antique cars will be displayed, with a volunteer available to shoot a photo of each visitor posing next to one of the cars.
The walk takes place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Bluff City Cemetery, 945 Bluff City Blvd., Elgin. Tickets are $12 in advance, $10 for 65 or older; $15 day of; free for kids under 12. Visit elginhistory.org for details.