Pair try to unravel a century of history at Blackberry Cemetery
by Lynn Meredith
Elburn—On any given day you’ll find real life History Detectives hard at work, looking for where the bodies are buried. From discovering that one woman was issued two burial certificates 10 years apart—only to uncover that one certificate was for her amputated leg—to finding records from early years of unidentified bodies being pushed out of the train and crushed, Fred Dornback and Helen Johnson find it all a great challenge.
“We took it on with the intention to bring order to the records. Our goal was to create a database and who was buried where,” said Dornback, sexton of Blackberry Cemetery in Elburn. “That’s the way it started, but it soon got a wee bit more complex. It got exciting and overwhelming.”
The confusion began with the way the records had been kept. From 1905 to 2007, when the Blackberry Cemetery Association surrendered responsibility to the township, the numbering and system of recording who is buried where varied by the person keeping the records.
“Sometimes they recorded who paid the bill. Sometimes it was who owned the grave site. Sometimes it was the name of the person who died,” Dornback said. “You don’t know.”
At present, Dornback and Johnson have 41 “unknowns.” One veteran of both World War I and II is known to be buried in the cemetery, but they cannot find a marker for him. Other people are listed on FindaGrave.com as being buried here, but someone with that name is not on any records.
“We start hunting down a name: ‘Do we have this person? ‘You get excited because it looks like you have them. The dates match. Then it says, ‘location unknown.’ This is the confusion we have. You don’t know until you match it with the obituary,” Dornback said.
Searching obituaries and genealogical resources isn’t the only way the pair have hunted down who’s buried where: they have walked the cemetery and taken a picture of each of the 2,700 graves.
“We used shaving cream when we were walking the cemetery. It would go in the creases and make the marker more readable,” Johnson said. “We had to remember to wash it off.”
Add to that the sorting-out process of old ledgers, envelopes, scraps of paper that fill several attache cases, along with three maps-each with different and conflicting information. They might work six months hunting down one name.
“We started to sort by decades—from 150 years-before we looked at individual stuff,” Dornback said. “We could have enjoyed ourselves, but we had to be prepared to sell grave sites in the meantime.”
Radar used by University of Illinois archeologists indicate that bodies may be buried underneath what are now paths. With not all graves marked, it’s not always clear what spots are safe to sell. On the site of the Memorial Day service, they think it is actually a “Potter’s Field” for the poor or those passing through who died.
Since 2010, the state of Illinois requires that 10 days after a person is buried, their name must be registered in the state database, including the location of the burial.
“We hope this will help future generations,” Dornback said.