McHenry man's genealogy project leads to the preservation of a 175-year-old cemetery in Lake County

Genealogy project leads to professionals preserving 175-year-old Fort Hill Cemetery

  • Christine Hillmann, a cemetery preservationist, works on righting one of the gravestones at Fort Hill Cemetery, established in 1844 near Round Lake.

      Christine Hillmann, a cemetery preservationist, works on righting one of the gravestones at Fort Hill Cemetery, established in 1844 near Round Lake. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • Vern Paddock, left, has written genealogies for more than 330 individuals buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery near Round Lake and created a website to share the information. Paddock talks with John Heider, a cemetery preservationist, who has been hired to repair and reset grave markers.

      Vern Paddock, left, has written genealogies for more than 330 individuals buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery near Round Lake and created a website to share the information. Paddock talks with John Heider, a cemetery preservationist, who has been hired to repair and reset grave markers. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • John Heider, a cemetery preservationist, has been hired to repair and reset grave markers at Fort Hill Cemetery near Round Lake.

      John Heider, a cemetery preservationist, has been hired to repair and reset grave markers at Fort Hill Cemetery near Round Lake. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • Ken Van Meter works to remove tree roots from the base of a grave.

      Ken Van Meter works to remove tree roots from the base of a grave. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/24/2019 9:44 AM

A milestone in a McHenry man's passion began Tuesday as specialists started the labor-intensive process of repairing and preserving 103 gravestones at one of Lake County's oldest cemeteries.

What began last year as a family research project for Vern Paddock focused attention on the Fort Hill Cemetery on the north side of Route 120, just east of Fairfield Road near Round Lake.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Established in 1844, the little cemetery is the final resting place for early settlers and their families, including Paddock's great-great-great-grandmother who came to the area from Vermont, died in 1860 and was buried at Fort Hill.

Alarmed at the rough state of the property, Paddock's inquiries regarding ownership triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the pending transfer of the cemetery deed from Lake County to Avon Township.

"There are so many families out there that go way, way back," said Avon Township Supervisor and Lake County Board member Terry Wilke.

Paddock's inquiries also prompted the extensive removal of overgrown bushes, trees and stumps, and other work that greatly improved the appearance and revealed hidden graves. That was the first hurdle in Paddock's quest.

"The second major thing is what's going on today," he said as professional cemetery preservationists John Heider of Gravestone Repair in Monticello, Illinois, and Christine Hillmann and Ken Van Meter, of Chris's Cemetery Preservation Inc., began righting tilted stones, repairing cracked or sheared ones, and other tasks.

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"They're assessing every gravestone that needs work," Paddock said.

Paddock used newspaper clippings, historical writings, obituaries and available photos, and began writing genealogies of individuals buried at Fort Hill.

To date, he has written more than 330 genealogies, and in January he launched www.forthillcemetery.org to chronicle and share the information.

"I felt if I'm going to do it for my relatives," he said of his research, "I might as well do it for everybody out here."

The county is paying about $23,000 for the preservation work before the property is transferred.

Using levers, pulleys, hand tools and a lot of elbow grease, the crew is probing for and exposing buried markers and cleaning, repairing and resetting them. Such work is governed by state law and there are few full-time professionals in the field.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"People no matter where I go say, 'You do what?' said Hillmann, who quit her job in corporate management in 2015 to pursue the craft.

Hillman was trained by Heider, an experienced cemetery preservationist who conducts training classes for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"We're in demand," he said. "It has to be done right."

A former teacher, Heider has repaired or reset thousands of grave markers and worked or taught classes in 56 Illinois counties and surrounding states. His old-school methods include using a L-shaped copper divining rod to locate graves.

"To rebuild these monuments, you're teaching history. They tell a story," he said.

One task Tuesday was to reattach the severed gravestone of 6-month-old Minnie L. Grover, who died in 1847, to its base.

The stone had been leaning against the gravestone of her mother, Nancy Grover, who died in 1861.

"It's fun. It's adventurous. It's rewarding. And the history you learn," Hillmann said of her work. "It's a museum set in stone."

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