Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Historic Cemetery in Disrepair

Oh, the Irony!

How ironic. The photo above captures the motto inscribed on a small plaque embedded in the cement post of the Pioneer Cemetery in McDonough County, Illinois. Ironic because in May 2010, the cemetery was forested by a variety of large old trees and younger saplings, and a faulty fence has allowed this ground to be the abiding place of choice for a herd of colorful cows and a young, ornery bull.

"Erected in honor of the pioneers who cleared away the forests and destroyed the abiding places of the wild beasts so that civilization might occupy the ground." 
This cemetery is surrounded by privately-owned land with no direct access from the public road. An easement is granted to cross the owner’s field to gain access to the site which is "enclosed" by an unlocked, gated fence. There are more than 50 documented burials on this one acre tract.

Brief History of the Cemetery

I imagine my Great-great-great grandfather, Greenup McClure, must certainly have chosen the location for his family burial ground with care and thoughtful consideration for the future.  After all, the people he loved best are laid to rest in that spot. I imagine that the historically-minded folks who chose the motto for the old gate post would be speechless at the droll paradox that now exists.

The acre Greenup McClure and his wife, Mary “Polly” (McComsey) McClure, set aside for the cemetery in 1835, not long after their family moved to Illinois from Kentucky, was centrally located on their homestead in Section 22, Bethel Township, McDonough County, Illinois. But that central location upon the farm has proven to be troublesome in maintaining and preserving this historic cemetery. 

The first known burial in 1838 was that of Greenup McClure's baby grandson, George Brundage, son of his daughter Mary.  More than 50 additional burials occurred over the subsequent 100 years, the latest, that of Sarah Norris, having occurred in 1943. 

It is Very Hard to Find

The McClure homestead long ago passed out of the hands of Greenup McClure's descendents. Many of them moved away when the westward expansion popularized homesteading in Kansas and Missouri.  Others who remained in Western Illinois have all but forgotten this old cemetery which is camouflaged by nature and located "way out in the boonies" well off the beaten track.  Recently the historical society placed a very nice new sign at the gate of the cemetery.  (Unfortunately, the sign is barely visible from the nearby country road--no ones fault, it's just that the cemetery is obscured by large trees). 

A deep ravine provides a natural border to the western edge of the cemetery, while pastures and fields flank the three other sides.  One must trek across the surrounding farm owner's land to enter the cemetery.  On some occasions I've opened the gates and driven through the pasture to the cemetery (with permission and care not to disturb the grazing cows). 

In the early 1990's a distant cousin and dedicated family researcher, Dan Venard, first guided my family to the cemetery.  It was mid-summer and at that time a serious overgrowth of weeds, including poison ivy, and the thought of possibly encountering snakes in the brush while lacking boots, made it impossible to explore deeply within the enclosure.  We were able to observe our mutual Venard ancestor's heavy monolith in an upright state and in good repair.  Dan also provided me with an old photo of that stone he took when the cemetery was better maintained in the 1960's. 

After many years away from Illinois, I still recalled the general location of the cemetery and tried to show it to my visiting cousin from Arizona a few years ago.  We were frustrated when we couldn't find it, but we visited another old cemetery where others of our direct line were laid to rest instead.  Still, I had it in my mind to find the Pioneer Cemetery, but even with map in hand and location plotted--it was still very difficult.  It turned out my cousin and I had been within a few hundred yards as we traveled up and down that county road trying to find the place.  A neighboring farmer proved essential in pointing out the hidden acre to me on my subsequent visit. 

On that visit of three years ago, I found the cemetery in fair but deteriorating condition.  As I photographed my family stones, it became obvious that it was important to photograph any and every stone I could find since the place was so inaccessible to the general public. 

Family Connectons Could Help Save the Cemetery

When I later set about researching the photos I had taken that day, the family connections emerged.  Most of 50-plus individuals were somehow related to Greenup McClure.  His daughter's married surnames (Venard, Wilson and Thompson) dominate the cemetery.  Some of those interred here, however, were neighbors in this township (for example, the Fugate and Osborn families) and others belonged to the family of subsequent owners of the property (Montee).  (In a separate blog entry you'll find a relationship chart).

I'm making this blog to display the biographies of the individuals interred in this cemetery and share the photos that I have of the graves.  I'm also including excerpts of the poor quality video that shows the conditions of the cemetery as of May 2010.  The McDonough County historical society is aware of the current situation and we await their actions.  I have also placed a call to the current owner of the surrounding farmland.  However, so much damage has been done to the existing graves, I'm hoping we can encourage a broad range of interest in preserving and rehabilitating this historic cemetery.

Notes:  This cemetery is officially named the Pioneer Cemetery, but it has also been referred to as the McClure Cemetery, Montee Cemetery, and Cost Cemetery. 

I'd also like to point out that Gordana Rezab’s 2008 publication, “Place Names of McDonough County, Illinois: Past and Present,” seriously errs in reporting that the Pioneer Cemetery was vacated by the Freeman Coal Mine for strip mining purposes. Rezab incorrectly asserts that the remains in this cemetery were disinterred and buried in the Old Macomb Cemetery unless otherwise claimed by relatives. In fact, the author’s claims apply instead to the Gin Ridge (also called Irish or Gunning) Cemetery in Bethel Township which was, in fact, located on land purchased by the Freeman Company in Bethel County's Section 26. This event was well documented by Goldstein and Buikstra in their 2004 publication, “A Nineteenth Century Rural Irish Cemetery in McDonough County, Illinois” that appeared as Chapter 4 in the book, “An Upper Great Lakes Archaeological Odyssey.”


  • Lester, D. (undated). Rural Cemeteries of McDonough County, Illinois, Volume II, Bethel-Industry. 
  • Clarke, S.J. (1878). History of McDonough County, Illinois, Its Cities, Towns and Villages. Springfield, Ill., 1878
  • Cemeteries of McDonough County, Illinois. Retreived 3/21/2008 from www.macomb.com/mcgs/cemeteries/   
  • History of McDonough County, Illinois. (1885). Continental Historical Co., Springfield, Illinois Transcribed by Karl A. Petersen for McDonough County ILGenWeb. Retrieved 3/21/2008 from http://www.macomb.com/~ilmcdono/townships/Betheltpindex.html  
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Carolyn Cooper, MPH, RN said...

If you'd like to send an email to the McDonough County Historical Society to let them know about your concern for the condition of your ancestors' final resting place, here is the email address: mcgs@macomb.com

TLG said...

It is very sad there seems to be no organized group specifically for this cemetery's protection and maintenance. Is it possible to find a Boy Scout troop or young man needing a project for an Eagle Scout award who could take this on as a project? In our 1840s family cemetery the family members are the ones who have through the years cared for the cemetery. In the 1940s a collection was taken from each of the families with someone buried there to erect a chainlink fence with posts which are embedded in a concrete base which encompasses the cemetery. This has protected it from farm animals through the years.

Could you spearhead getting family members to come together for a workday and donation of funds to pay for more protective fencing and then get this group to work together with outside groups who will help you keep it protected from the landowner's neglect in allowing his animals into it? The McDonough County Historical Society would not seem to have the power needed to deal with the landowner. If this has been an abandoned cemetery, the Illinois state Comptroller's cemetery care division states on its website that the landowner is "legally prohibited from destroying or damaging the cemetery in any way"


It would seem those interested in protecting the cemetery need to get support from the state laws governing this neglect by the landowner. Illinois Historic Preservation agency is responsible for oversight of historic cemeteries and it is at that level, not the county historical society level, that you could probably gain support for what you need. There will be no finances to help, but letters of support from those agencies would be helpful in getting cooperation from the landowner. If he does not respond, those two agencies should be able to advise you as to how to proceed to take legal action against the landowner. Perhaps your family group will have a lawyer among you for donation of professional services.


You have made a great start in getting attention to this situation, but you clearly need a strong family support base with the support of the state agency responsible for oversight of this cemetery. Stay with it and get the cattle out of the cemetery as soon as possible. Their owner is legally responsible for keeping them out of the cemetery.

Carolyn Cooper, MPH, RN said...

Thank you for the great comments, TLG--all points well-taken. I don't live close to this county, and for carefully considered reasons, I also don't want to be the Lone Ranger in this, and I dearly welcome all input and suggestions such as you have provided.

This blog is a baby step in preservation and consciousness raising. Hopefully we can influence more visitors here to voice concerns to the McDonough County Historical Society and raise momentum. The descendents of these pioneers are pretty far flung as our ancestors continued to push west.

A local group did erect the brown historical sign at the cemetery last year and I'm told they did some clean up, but with the current state of affairs, the situation there has changed for the worse.

Hopefully the "McDonough Voice" will print my letter to the editor which is aimed toward the local community, seeking answers on who and how can spearhead a preservation effort at that level. The fundamentals of community organization clearly inform me that even though I and others have a sentimental attachment to that old Pioneer Cemetery, we really need the interest and support of the community to be successful in getting the project underway.

The squeeky wheel gets the grease. I got the impression from some initial correspondence with the historical society that we need to make the wheel squeek and showcase family support for this project. I hope we can do it in a way that the community will embrace and that no one will resent--that will lead us to long-term success . . .

Carolyn Cooper, MPH, RN said...

Here is an excerpt from an email from McDonough County Historical Society that I received today:

"I wish I could be more helpful, but the Historical Society and Genealogical Society
have no standing to take any action. We have publicized the plight of neglected cemeteries, but that has not resulted in any meaningful
action by any authorities.

"My only suggestion is to identify the owner of the cattle and seek repair of the fence and repair of monuments."

Now the position of the MCHS is clear on this--this is not a project that they are going to pursue. Well, it is very disappointing. My cousin Goldie Wilson and I are being Henny Penny, here, looking for some help.