Constable: Body a mystery, but 1884 tombstone finds resting place in Northbrook

  • The tombstone of George S. Schnabele, who died in 1884, had been resting under the trees of this Cook County forest preserve near Northbrook for decades. Its new resting place will be with the Northbrook Historical Society.

      The tombstone of George S. Schnabele, who died in 1884, had been resting under the trees of this Cook County forest preserve near Northbrook for decades. Its new resting place will be with the Northbrook Historical Society. Daily Herald file photo by Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Standing in the excavated Aux Plaine Pioneer Cemetery in Northbrook in 2007, then-Fire Chief Ron Schinleber could see the long-forgotten graves. Now a marker sits on the grassy knoll covering those graves.

    Standing in the excavated Aux Plaine Pioneer Cemetery in Northbrook in 2007, then-Fire Chief Ron Schinleber could see the long-forgotten graves. Now a marker sits on the grassy knoll covering those graves. Courtesy of Ron Schinleber

  • Looking through realms of records at the Northbrook Historical Society in 2014, President Judy Hughes and Ron Schinleber find information on Schinleber's 19th-century relatives, who were among the first German immigrants to settle in the land that once was home to the Potawatomi tribes.

      Looking through realms of records at the Northbrook Historical Society in 2014, President Judy Hughes and Ron Schinleber find information on Schinleber's 19th-century relatives, who were among the first German immigrants to settle in the land that once was home to the Potawatomi tribes. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • After decades of lying in a Cook County forest preserve, the 1884 tombstone of George Schnabele was delivered in the back of this vehicle to distant relative Ron Schinleber, who is donating it to the Northbrook Historical Society.

    After decades of lying in a Cook County forest preserve, the 1884 tombstone of George Schnabele was delivered in the back of this vehicle to distant relative Ron Schinleber, who is donating it to the Northbrook Historical Society. Courtesy of Paula Porubcan Branstner

  • This marble tombstone for George S. Schnabele has been in a Cook County forest preserve for decades. Now, it will be part of a Northbrook Historical Society display.

    This marble tombstone for George S. Schnabele has been in a Cook County forest preserve for decades. Now, it will be part of a Northbrook Historical Society display. Courtesy of Ron Schinleber

 
 
Updated 5/5/2022 9:44 AM

Every decade or so, a hiker in the Cook County Forest Preserve Dam No. 1 Woods south of Dundee Road and east of the Des Plaines River would stumble across a mysterious tombstone and want to know the story of George S. Schnabele, who died on June 30, 1884, says Judy Hughes, president of the Northbrook Historical Society.

Now Schnabele's tombstone and his story will be part of a display at the society's museum.

 

But there's still a bit of a mystery.

No one knows how long Schnabele's tombstone had been resting on the lush forest floor beneath the towering trees, but Illinois and Cook County officials conducted an investigation and decided it had been long enough.

"There were concerns that somebody would come in and deface or damage the headstone," says Ron Schinleber, the retired Northbrook deputy fire chief whose great-grandmother Viola Wessling was Schnabele's niece, making him the closest living next of kin.

"It (the tombstone) was released from the state of Illinois and given to Ron Schinleber, and Ron donated it to us," Hughes says. Schinleber signed off on the paperwork to move the tombstone to the Northbrook History Museum in the three-story Northfield Inn at 1776 Walters Ave. in Northbrook.

"It took four people to pick it up," Schinleber says.

"That tombstone is heavy," says Hughes, who joined Schinleber as the relic was unloaded.

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The marble tombstone eventually will be on display next to the 1854 tombstone of Edward Macomber in the society's possession, Hughes says.

But the location of Schnabele's remains is a bit of a mystery. His father-in-law, George Wessling, a prominent settler whose family has lived in the Northbrook area for generations, once owned a farm near the land where his tombstone was found. There are areas where farmers simply buried relatives on the family farm.

But archaeologists from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and officials from the Cook County Forest Preserve conducted research on the site where the tombstone had been, and determined that Schnabele was not buried there.

The farmstead was abandoned, and all buildings were razed by the time the forest preserve bought the land in 1945.

The remains of an old foundation wall from 1928 were found about three feet from the tombstone, and it's unlikely someone would have built so close to a grave.

"Therefore, it is more likely that the Schnabele tombstone was not present on this parcel in 1928, but instead was relocated/dumped next to the razed outbuilding location and two-track lane sometime after 1945," concludes a report sent by Paula Porubcan Branstner, field station coordinator for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey's field office in Elgin.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That report suggests Schnabele was buried in the former Aux Plaine Pioneer Cemetery, which was operated by a German church, started in a log cabin in 1837 by pastor Daniel Stanger.

That cemetery, which buried people in the order they died, had 125 graves by 1880, many of them marked with flowering bushes or small, curved stones.

But the church divided, and eventually abandoned the property.

By 1969, any stones or markers had been removed and the land "had become an untended dumping ground for abandoned cars, refuse, and building debris," the report says.

In 2007, as part of a commercial development, an archaeological field investigation stripped the topsoil and found 82 burial shafts, which Hughes and Schinleber saw before those graves were re-covered that same day.

"It was one of the most incredible things I've seen," Hughes says. "It was a window to the past."

A Chase Bank sits near that spot today, and during a ceremony in 2013, Hughes, Schinleber and Northbrook officials helped dedicate a stone marker on a grassy knoll in front of the bank reading: "In the late 1830s, American and European Pioneers came to this area to settle on the fertile land nestled between the Des Plaines and Skokie rivers. Here, on this small plot of land, those pioneers laid to rest the men, women and children, who were among the founders of our community."

While there is speculation that a handful of the grave markers were moved to North Northfield Cemetery, most of the bodies remain in the area with the stone marker. although some graves were probably covered long ago by Dundee Road, Hughes says.

Hughes notes that lots of graves, especially those of enslaved people and Native Americans, probably have been paved over across the nation.

The Northbrook Historical Society's motto is "Keeper of the Stories," and stories carry more importance than where the bodies are buried. That no one can be sure of Schnabele's final resting stop doesn't bother Schinleber.

"No," Schinleber says. "I think it's the way things are."

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