Before there was us

Forest Preserve cemeteries connect Will County to its natural history

|  Story by Bruce Hodgdon  |


Cemeteries are a uniquely human expression of remembrance. For those who were at the gravesite as a deceased was laid to rest, those memories live on until their own deaths. As generations pass, the time comes when all that often remains of the deceased are the words written on his or her grave marker.

Four properties owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District contain gravesites dating back to the 1800s. These range from a single family plot to a designated cemetery. Each of these pioneer cemeteries tells a story of those who lived in a very different world than the one we know today.



Vermont Cemetery Preserve

Vermont Cemetery Preserve, on Normantown Road in Naperville/Wheatland Township, is unique among Forest Preserve holdings. Not only is the heart of the preserve miniscule in size at just one acre, but it could be the only acre in all of Will County that has not been disturbed by farming, grazing or development. Moreover, it is an Illinois Nature Preserve because of its rich assortment of plants native to northeastern Illinois.

Its preservation is due to the cemetery that was established here in the 1840s.

Aerial view of gravestone at Vermont Cemetery Preserve.

(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.

Aerial view of gravestone at Vermont Cemetery Preserve.

Many of the gravestones that remain are of sandstone, and their inscriptions have been worn away by time. A few, however, are made of marble, and their inscriptions are still readable today.

(Photo by Chad Merda)

John Hafenrichter, a local historian who has since passed away, speculated that Vermont Cemetery, which dates to the 19th century, was the designated resting place for settlers who came from Vermont. Some were likely itinerant workers, who moved from farm to farm as work became available, and their markers were made from the inexpensive sandstone.

Hafenrichter discovered that the bodies interred in the cemetery were of the Wheatland Congregation, one of four primary groups who settled in Wheatland Township according to their national origin. The Wheatland Congregation was made up largely of immigrants from Germany, and a few of the legible grave markers contain Biblical passages in German.

The Forest Preserve District of Will County accepted the Vermont Cemetery as a donation from the Natural Land Institute in 1998. An inventory identified 70 native species of plants, 10 percent of all of Illinois’ Grade A dry-mesic species. Included are the federally and state-threatened Mead’s milkweed and the state-threatened Hill’s thistle.

The cemetery was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1999, providing the highest degree of protection that exists. This protection assures that the remains of those buried there will lie in peace forever.


Runyon Preserve

A very different gravesite is found at Runyon Preserve, in Lockport. A family plot contains the remains of Anna Hornbecker, Winfred Runyon and Oliver Runyon, the first wife and two sons of Armstead Runyon, the first settler in Lockport.

The 0.6-acre cemetery was acquired by the Forest Preserve in 1998, after the District had maintained it for decades.

Two gravestones.

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Armstead Runyon, having emigrated from Danville, Illinois, settled on land along Fiddyment Creek in October 1830 on what is today the north side of Lockport. Many years later, while her father was away on business, Elizabeth Runyon Boyer, one of his daughters, remembered “very distinctly the prairie wolves used to come around the tent and render the night hideous with their blood-curdling howls.” She also recalled that “for several weeks before [her father] returned, [the family] had nothing to live on but salt pork and corn bread made of meal so musty that it did not seem fit for a dog to eat.”

By 1836, with more and more settlers moving into Will County, Runyon devised a design for North Lockport, or Runyontown. It would eventually come to be known as Runyon’s Addition to Lockport.

Armstead Runyon and Elizabeth Runyon Boyer

Armstead Runyon and Elizabeth Runyon Boyer (Photos courtesy of the Lockport Area Genealogical & Historical Society)

Following the death of his wife and two sons, Runyon moved to California in 1849. Unlike the thousands who swarmed to California in search of gold, Runyon recognized the fertile soil of the Sacramento valley as being ideal for fruit trees. According to research by Ruth Waldvogel of the Lockport Historic Group, he was the first to plant orchards in Sacramento County.

Runyon died on September 8, 1876, in Santa Rosa, California, where he and his second wife, Mary Crawford Runyon, had resided since 1871.

The three graves in Runyon Preserve retain a link to the first settler of Lockport and also testify to the precarious reality of pioneer life in the 19th century. Anna Hornbecker Runyon died at age 38, son Winfred died just short of his second birthday and son Oliver passed away at age 8.

Huyck’s Grove Preserve

The cemetery at Huyck's Grove Preserve.

(Photo by Chad Merda)

In Wilton Township, a cemetery consisting of 20 markers resides in Huyck’s Grove Preserve. Only five of the grave markers include dates: 1866, two in 1869, 1893 and 1901. The cemetery was included in a small settlement established on 80 acres of land originally purchased by Abraham Huyck on November 17, 1838, and a 40-acre parcel bought by Asenath Huyck on August 18, 1845.

Soloman “Salma” D. Seaver, a native of Vermont, came to Will County in 1854, and by 1862 had taken possession of the original Huycks’ holdings. (Eventually Seaver would acquire additional land to expand his ownership to 565 acres.)

Seaver was born around 1832 in Vermont and married his wife Jeanette, who was also Vermont born, prior to 1860. Jeanette is buried in the Seaver cemetery, having died at age 33. The 40-year-old Soloman remarried in 1872 to 19-year-old Robena M. Simpson, who also was born in Vermont. Soloman farmed his land while Robena managed the household and the nine children they had together.

Soloman died in 1899.

As is the case with the Runyon cemetery, the fragility of life on the 19th-century prairie is revealed in the Seaver cemetery. The extant cemetery of 20 markers includes eight of children who died before reaching the age of 4.

Close-up of a gravestone.

(Photo by Chad Merda)


Laughton Preserve

In contrast to the other three cemeteries located on Forest Preserve property, little is known of the cemetery within Laughton Preserve, in Manhattan/Wilton Township. Dating to the 1850s, this is the “only early cemetery found by worthy archeological investigation in and about Twelve Mile Grove,” according to Dr. William P. Leavitt, whose ancestors are buried there.

Twelve Mile Grove was a notable landmark in Will County to the earliest settlers of this area. According to the History of Wilton Illinois, 1907, “There was no part of Will County that was better known in early times than ‘Twelve Mile Grove.’ … True there was prairie all around, but that was not thought of. It was at Twelve Mile Grove where everybody in that section lived, and it was there that all went, who went in that direction. It was a famous locality in many respects. It was a large one, covering some square miles in its original state, and furnished lumber and fuel for all who wanted it. In the early days of the grove, it was one of the finest tracts of timber in all northern Illinois … in the beauty and size of its black walnuts, oaks and hickories, and they furnished the early settler with all the timber and fuel needed for a year. Then it was a famous hunting ground for deer and wild turkeys, while the prairies abounded in chickens and other small game. It was an Indian reservation and the trail to the Des Plaines timber in the Kankakee River led directly through it, and thus it was a great highway of the natives in their journeys to the south and east, the grove furnishing to them an excellent camping place, in which to erect their tepees and replenish their stock of provisions. A branch of Forked Creek runs through the grove … and no better camping place could anywhere be found than on the smooth banks of that stream.”

The extant cemetery apparently contains the remains of many families, but “the markers that once existed here have either been destroyed by weather or man,” according to Leavitt.

The shelter at Laughton Preserve.

What is known of the Leavitts is largely derived from a journal kept by Sarah Sturtevant-Leavitt, wife of Jeremiah Leavitt II, whose family arrived in 1838. Leavitt, who published the journal under the title Autobiography of Sarah Sturtevant-Leavitt, cites four family members buried in the cemetery:

  • Sarah Shannon, age 73, wife of Jeremiah Leavitt I
  • Weare Leavitt, age 52, son of Jeremiah Leavitt I and Sarah Shannon
  • Jeremiah Leavitt, age 22, son of Weare Leavitt and Abigail Cowles
  • Benjamin Fletcher, age 29, husband of Roxanna Leavitt

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

In a 2002 story in The Daily Journal, Dennis Sullivan writes about the effort to preserve the parcel containing the cemetery. The Forest Preserve District was looking to acquire this land to expand Laughton Preserve and protect a section of Forked Creek. Among those advocating the acquisition was then Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, who believed some of his ancestors were buried there.

Sarah Sturtevant-Leavitt’s journal records that she, her husband Jeremiah and nine children arrived at Twelve-Mile Grove in 1837, where they lived for about two years. Her husband and sons found work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal 14 miles west of Joliet. They came from Quebec, Sullivan writes, to join the Mormon community at Navoo, Illinois, and from there, they moved to Utah, a trek that would take 13 years in all.

The family settled in the Santa Clara River area of Utah, in the Salt Lake Valley, among the first Mormon families to do so. In 1998, a life-size bronze statue of Sarah Sturtevant-Leavitt was unveiled in a park in Santa Clara, Utah. In 2008, seven busts were added to the memorial, honoring Sarah Sturtevant-Leavitt’s seven children who survived and reportedly helped to settle Santa Clara.

The cemetery at Laughton Preserve was designated as a Will County landmark in 2004.

(Lead image by Chad Merda)

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