(Photo by Chad Merda)
According to an August 2017 Chicago Tribune story written by Christopher Borrelli, titled “In Pioneering Cemeteries, a Disappearing Part of Illinois’ Landscape Lives On,” Vermont Cemetery’s protection was due to the efforts of one man who recognized its significance as a natural history treasure. His commitment would lead to a greater effort to preserve the natural world that the pioneers would still recognize today.
Borrelli writes that cemeteries such as this sat abandoned, “Until the 1960s, when Robert Betz, a botanist at Northeastern Illinois University (who died in 2007), started drawing connections between a handful of pioneer cemeteries and what remained of prairie ecosystems. He started with Vermont Cemetery in Naperville, now a part of the Forest Preserve of Will County. (It's a glaring reminder of the benefits of being protected, standing a full 18 inches higher than the unprotected, soil-eroded residential-commercial land that surrounds it.) In 1976, inspired by Betz, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory began an extensive study of sites with pre-settlement vegetation, which later became a cornerstone of nature preservation in Illinois. Botanists and biologists crisscrossed the state for years, visiting 4,000 cemetery sites to find what was left of even the narrowest sliver of prairie microcosm.” To date, 29 prairie cemeteries in east central Illinois have been identified.
Betz, along with volunteer assistants, began managing this special 1-acre plot. To protect the native vegetation existing at the cemetery, he and his helpers took to performing periodic burns, clearing brush, removing litter, controlling trespassing and providing surveillance of the parcel.
In 1970, Betz enclosed the entire cemetery with a chain link fence, paid for by contributions. The cemetery is still protected by fencing, so no public access is allowed. This fencing not only protects the gravesites but also the native flora of the Illinois Nature Preserve.