Wauconda Township plans upgrades for old cemetery

A small patch of woods appears out of place in the stubble of a former cornfield near Volo, but there is a reason it has not been disturbed.

The trees shelter the remains of people from a time long past. And after years when the only attention came from vandals, there is a plan to give tiny, hidden Hope Grove cemetery its due.

"All these years, they kept this chunk natural as it is and farmed around it," Wauconda Township Supervisor Glenn Swanson said. "This is just an old cemetery in the middle of a cornfield the township plans to restore."

How this curious piece of property came to be and why the timeline of the burials was so short are among many questions as the township proceeds with a plan next spring to build a split-rail fence around it and install a brass sign of recognition.

  Wauconda Township Supervisor Glenn Swanson stands near a fenced plot in the Hope Grove cemetery off Wilson Road. Steve Lundy/

"We have paperwork on the cemetery, (but) we never made it out here until recently. It was privately owned land," Swanson said.

By paperwork, Swanson means a listing of nine bodies buried from 1847 to 1861 at Hope Grove, near Wilson Road and Route 120.

Why it's also known by township officials as the Shaw Family Cemetery is another mystery, as there are no Shaws among those names and likely few alive who have the answer. "It's a really fascinating situation," Swanson said.

The cemetery is in Wauconda Township, but it became an island after the Lake County Forest Preserve District several years ago purchased the surrounding property to create the Kettle Grove Forest Preserve.

Nothing changed until the forest district began an extensive restoration of the property and removed the farm from production. The restoration includes eliminating invasive species, controlled burning and planting native seeds.

  The Hope Grove cemetery sits in a 150-by-280-foot grove of trees off Wilson Road in Wauconda Township. Steve Lundy/

Over time, the cemetery may be surrounded by savanna and prairie as it had been long ago before the land was farmed, said Jim Anderson, the district's director of natural resources. The work on the overall site also includes restoring oak woodlands that surround wetlands, he said.

The district in November approved a temporary license agreement to secure legal access to work on the single township-owned acre where the cemetery is. Restoration crews have been waiting until the ground freezes to clear the cemetery site. Although there are a few oaks and cherries, most of what is there is scrub, said Rebecca Hegner, planning and land use administrator.

"It will look very different," she said, as it will be more of a match to the surrounding area.

A couple of the headstones will be taken off-site while work on the cemetery is done, she said, but the exact locations have been recorded and they'll be returned to the same spot. The goal is to minimize impact on the cemetery, she said.

According to information provided by the township, the inscriptions on the headstones originally were noted in 1962 and rechecked in 1981, when only three were readable. What is certain is the incredible age of this final resting place.

  A gravestone sits in a fenced plot in the Hope Grove cemetery in Wauconda Township. Steve Lundy/

One notable feature is an ornate old iron fence surrounding the plot of John Fleming, who died in 1852.

"He definitely had a nice section preserved for him," Swanson said. "This guy here was special," he added.

One of the few other headstones that can be discerned is a head shaker for history buffs. George Dart is listed as being more than 84 years old when he died July 14, 1858, meaning he was born before the Revolutionary War.

According to research by Jenny Barry, local history librarian at the Cook Memorial Public Library District, census information listed Dart's birthplace as Delaware and his occupation was farmer. There is nothing about him in any Lake County histories, Barry said, although his son, Emory, is noted as enlisting in the Army in 1862 and being killed at Chickamauga in 1863.

Swanson continues searching for answers but knows it is tall order. A Facebook page has been created to share information.

  A gravestone is dated 1850 in the Hope Grove cemetery in Wauconda Township. Steve Lundy/

"It's an interesting thing to dive into and find out what the story is," he said.

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