Jefferson County


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Oakwood Cemetery marks 125 years 

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MT. VERNON - Oakwood Cemetery will be holding its annual Memorial Day drive through and 
its 125 year anniversary.

"Oakwood is now the largest cemetery in Jefferson County," a history of the cemetery 
states. "We have more trees than probably all of the other cemeteries in the county 
combined and we plant approximately 20 new trees per year to replace those that die or 
are damaged by storms. We have over five miles of roads, more than 10,000 burials and 
almost 9,000 markers. We mow the entire cemetery about 35 times a year for a total of 
1,600 acres and dispose of leaves about for times a year for a total of 180 acres."

The history of the cemetery was originally compiled by Joe Boyle, according to Dee Hercules, 
cemetery secretary/treasurer. This year, the history was updated by John Howard, a member of 
the cemetery board.

For those who are searching genealogies and local history, Oakwood Cemetery staff have worked 
to help find grave sites.

"We have prepared a brochure and a map of a lot of the cemetery with most of the historical 
people who are here," Hercules said. "Using the map, you can get right to the ones you are 
looking for."

Oakwood Cemetery board members are president Tom Wielt, John Howard, Sylvia Howard, 
Judy Myers, Gino Federici, Mike Walker, Tami Cralley, Kathleen McMurrin and Richard Briesacher.

The cemetery didn't have a smooth beginning, and it was the death of a toddler by the name 
of Watson whose burial was the first in Oakwood Cemetery.

"On Oct. 7, 1875, a child less than 2-years-old, Frank W. Watson, died and was buried in 
the Broadway location under cover of darkness, thereby starting a cemetery," the official 
history states. "The city would not recognize the place as a cemetery until it was deeded 
to Oakwood (on) July 26, 1883."

The history of the cemetery tells of the early days of the cemetery, the city, and changes 
which have happened through present times:

For those who are searching genealogies and local history, Oakwood Cemetery staff have 
worked to help find grave sites.

"According to local legend in the 1870s, the boundaries of the city of Mt. Vernon, Ill., 
were the present 18th Street on the west, Oakland Avenue on the north, the Chicago & 
Eastern Railroad on the east and Forrest Avenue on the south. There was no cemetery 
within the city limits. North of Mt. Vernon - now 27th Street and Old Union Road - 
was located the Old Union Cemetery; south of the city, at the northeast corner of what 
is now Bethel Cemetery, was Pace Cemetery, both of them situated on dirt roads and 
difficult to reach in bad weather.

"In the early 1870s, two Mt. Vernon businessmen, Samuel H. Watson and Van Wilbanks, 
owned land on the north side of what is now Broadway, west of what is not 22nd Street, 
consisting of 56.89 acres. They offered this property to the city of Mt. Vernon for a cemetery. 
Their gift was declined by the city fathers for the reason that the site was too far from the city."

The first directors of the cemetery were G.F.M Ward and John Rackaway.

"The grave of Frank W. Watson is located one street west of the octagonal building, on 
the southeast corner of the cross streets. About 1980, a small monument, buried at that 
site, was discovered and reset on a concrete base, once again a permanent marker.

"The first section of Oakwood Cemetery to be platted contained 20 acres. The sexton 
lived, rent free, on a farmhouse on the land. His duties consisted of the care of the 
cemetery. Since the original plat, five new sections have been opened and there is still 
ground for further expansion.

"Some 40 or 50 years after the first plat, L.L. Emmerson, a future governor of Illinois, 
and as director of the Albion Brick Company of Albion, furnished the brick to pave the 
two entrances to the cemetery, north a distance of three blocks to and around the octagonal 
building, west to the Veterans Circle, and two blocks to the east of the building. This is 
one of the two brick streets remaining in Mt. Vernon.

"During the 1920s, the cemetery's records were lost in a fire, which destroyed the farm 
house. A full-time sexton was employed to maintain the cemetery, dig the graves by hand, 
and keep the grass mowed and the leaves raked.

"In the early 1920s, the Third National Bank, located at the southwest corner of the 
intersection of 10th Street and Main Street, undertook a major remodeling project which 
involved doubling the size of their first floor banking quarters and moving the entrance 
from the northeast corner of the building to the middle of its east end. Two or three of 
the directors of the bank were also trustees of Oakwood Cemetery. One of the pillars on 
either side of the former front door was moved to the cemetery and placed in the center 
of Johnson Circle west of the octagonal building to make a veterans memorial. A bronze 
plaque dedicated the memorial to veterans of all wars.

"In 1946, Oakwood was reorganized as the Mt. Vernon Oakwood Cemetery Association and the 
proper Internal Revenue Service 501(c)3 designation was obtained to provide tax exempt 
status for donors.

"During the 1980s, a bronze eagle was placed on top of the column, a concrete curb was 
installed around the circle and three aluminum flag poles were installed within the circle. 
From them now fly the American flag, the State of Illinois flag, and the POW-MIA (Prisoner 
of War-Missing In Action) flag lighted so they can be displayed at night.

"A trustee located a replica of a Civil War 6-pound cannon; a concrete pad was installed 
and the cannon, since rebuilt as a project of Civil War reenactors, stands in the circle.

"In the 1970s, a backhoe was purchased, along with a truck and power lawnmowers. Now, 
with mechanical leafblowers, the cemetery is maintained in a modern manner.

"Many prominent citizens of Mt. Vernon and Jefferson County, in addition to founders Watson 
and Wilbanks and trustees Ward and Rackaway ... are buried in Oakwood. A few are W.C. Arthurs, 
president of the Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co.; James W. Pace, first mayor of Mt. Vernon; 
C. W. Pavey and W. B Anderson, Civil War generals; L.L. Emmerson, Governor of Illinois; ... 
Dr. Andy Hall, former mayor of Mt. Vernon and American Medical Association practitioner of 
the year in 1949; John Wall, local historian; Lewis Brake, National Commander of the Veterans 
of World War I; and Clyde Lee, a prominent insurance agent, trotting horseman, state 
representative and state senator.

"A recent count shows 47 Civil War Union soldiers and four Confederate soldiers buried in
 our cemetery. Legend has it that Confederate monuments have pointed tops so that Union 
soldiers could not sit on them.

"In the early 1980s, the last of the businessmen on the 1946 board had passed away and the 
cemetery was experiencing serious financial problems, leading to failures in the maintenance 
program, including mowing and leaf disposal. In February 1982, a new board of trustees was 
installed, with Robert G. Metcalf as president. He and several of the other directors had 
extensive experience in various aspects of the construction industry and worked together 
to update our groundskeeping activities."

The public now receives a twice-a-year letter which is issued at Memorial Day and prior 
to Christmas. The cemetery is now operated with an endowment fund and the rest of the income 
is generated through donations, lot sales and grave openings. There are three full-time 
employees and community service workers also have been used to help maintain the grounds.

Veterans Circle at Oakwood Cemetery took years to become the veterans memorial that can be 
viewed today. The pillars of the memorial were donated by Third National Bank in the 1920s 
to begin building of the area. A bronze plaque was added, and then during the 1980s, a bronze 
eagle was placed on top of the column, a concrete curb was installed around the circle and 
three aluminum flag poles were installed within the circle. A replica of a Civil War 6-pound 
cannon was found by a trustee of the cemetery and it has been rebuilt by area Civil War 

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