Historic Woodlawn Cemetery still recovering from spring storm

News-DemocratJanuary 12, 2014 

— At first glance, the trees and hills of Woodlawn Cemetery seem undisturbed -- until you spot the Varner grave.

Easily 400 pounds, the Varner monument is one of several that broke in half during a severe spring storm last year. The vicious storm tore through some of the older trees, knocking into gravestones nearing their second century. The statue of an angel atop a giant pillar was knocked 20 feet to the ground, and other monuments were broken or knocked over. Some have been repaired, but others require specialty services that cost a lot of money.

Edward Ricks, who has been sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery since the summer, said he has done his best to clean out the mess left by the storm. He pointed out the places where massive trees had fallen, and have since been removed. But the storm "really took a toll" on the tombstones and statues, he said.

And preserving Woodlawn is important, he said. He used to work at golf courses, but came to Woodlawn to help preserve Edwardsville's history, he said.

"It is a pretty cemetery with all the old monuments; places like this are priceless," Ricks said. "You don't see them very often."

Woodlawn Cemetery is one of the newest additions to Edwardsville's register of historic places. Established in 1871, its first internment was Louis George William Smith, 9-month-old son of Christian and Frances Smith. The new cemetery had just been opened, and according to historic documents, a neighbor of the new cemetery fretted about "the little boy who was all alone" in Woodlawn.

But he was only the first. Within six years, nine children and 11 adults were buried there. Then in the late 1800s, he got a lot of company.

Visitors to Woodlawn might be surprised to see many graves much older than the 143-year-old cemetery. The tiny Lusk Cemetery lay in the path of a road project, and more than 370 of its graves were relocated to Woodlawn. Therefore, many of the stones date back to the 1840s, including the names of early Edwardsville settlers and family names that continue to today's residents.

The oldest graves lie near the entrance, by St. Louis Street. As the population grew, graves were dug further down the steep hill toward the woods behind the cemetery. Even now there are plots sold, with the newest graves farthest from the road. Local residents often walk through it as a park, not just a cemetery.

Woodlawn is the final resting place of 140 Civil War veterans, 122 veterans of later wars and one Revolutionary War veteran: George Prickett, who died in 1844. Annexed into the city in the 1980s, the cemetery lies just at the edge of the St. Louis Street historic district. Each year, Edwardsville's Memorial Day remembrance is held there, among the hundreds of military graves.

For Rue Foe, president of the nonprofit cemetery's board, it's a personal place: he has a daughter and granddaughter buried there. He sees their role as stewards of one of the most attractive, parklike properties in the area.

"It's more than a place to visit the loved ones who have passed on," Foe said. "It's a beautiful piece of property; you don't find this kind of cemetery everywhere."

The small chapel in Woodlawn was designed by architect Edward Kane Sr., before he himself was buried in Woodlawn. An unusual 1967 design with high ceilings and wooden beams, the chapel is not just for small funerals: at least one couple chose to be married there.

"The only charge was that we had to give them a wedding picture," said Maxine Pakovich Callies, who married her husband there about 10 years ago. "It's a holy place; that's how I always felt about that chapel, peacefulness."

But Woodlawn has fallen on difficult financial times, and not just because of the storm. Upkeep had waned in the early part of last year, and people were less likely to purchase spaces, Foe said.

"We felt that was part of the downfall; who wants to buy spaces when it looks like that?" said board member Michele Todd. "The storm just threw us over the brink, with so many trees and so many monuments damaged."

One very large tree fell onto two monuments behind the chapel, Todd said. It could not be removed by volunteers or the sexton due to its position; if the giant tree shifted during removal, it could have fallen on the workers. But the professional tree service cost more than $5,000.

While some monuments -- including the lady angel statue -- have been repaired, others are waiting their turn. The 400-pound Varner stone will require specialty bonding treatments to put it back together, Ricks said. All of that takes money.

So the Woodlawn Cemetery board is planning a number of fundraisers in 2014. Raising another $10,000 would get the monuments repaired and a new roof for the chapel. Letters have been sent to all the property owners that can still be found.

Come June, there will be a "Voices From the Past" tour at Woodlawn Cemetery. Historic re-enactors will stand by the graves of prominent residents and tell the stories of their lives in decades past, as guided tours pass through the cemetery of Edwardsville history. Scheduled for June 14 and 28, tickets will go on sale soon for interested people to reserve a spot.

And like the Wildey Theater before it, Woodlawn will begin to sell memorial bricks personalized with names and messages to raise money for the restoration. Bricks will go from $25 to $300, and will go on sale soon.

"Over the last year or two, we've been struggling," Foe said. "But we want to keep the cemetery in tip-top shape."

Foe said the board has applied to the state to borrow from its own reserves, though they would rather raise the money directly as a nonprofit.

The recent decision to recognize Woodlawn Cemetery on the local register of historic places helps, Foe said. While they'd like to go for the state and national registers as well, that has to wait in line behind the restoration project. It costs money to apply for those registers, he said, and they need to fix the tombstones first.

For many current and former residents, Woodlawn is a special place. "I would hate to see Woodlawn fall to the same fate as Lusk and lose a vital piece of Edwardsville's past," said Michele Sowerby, a former Edwardsville resident who now lives in the United Kingdom.

For Barbara Finch, Woodlawn is "a place to meditate, reflect on memories and enjoy the tranquility of the pastoral beauty."

And for Todd, both personally and as part of the board, preserving Woodlawn is important because she loves Edwardsville. "It's such a wonderful place to walk through," Todd said. "When I've had a hard day, I like to go down to the bottom of the cemetery, sit in my car and watch the wildlife, the deer and the fawns. The sexton back then had birds that would come down from the trees and sit right on her shoulder. I saw it with my own eyes! It's breathtaking."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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