O'Fallon Progress

Memorial to founder of First Baptist Church to be erected at O’Fallon cemetery

John Mason Peck
John Mason Peck Provided

A local historical figure will be honored with a memorial marker at Rock Spring Cemetery in O’Fallon with the help of the O’Fallon Township board and the O’Fallon Historical Society.

The township board voted with no objections at the Jan. 4 meeting to allocate about $800 to the O’Fallon Historical Society to purchase and erect a memorial cenotaph at Rock Spring Cemetery to the Rev. John Mason Peck, the founder of the First Baptist Church in St. Louis, and O’Fallon’s first postmaster.

Thomas Marshall Schwarztrauber, vice president of the OHS, said the cenotaph will be purchased from TISCH Monuments in Belleville.

“Once it’s been ordered, we will have it installed as soon as possible,” Schwarztrauber said.

A dedication ceremony will be held at a later date, which still has yet to be determined, he said.

The society has taken Rock Spring Cemetery under its wing, which is located off Commerce Drive in O’Fallon.

OHS President Brian Keller said there is no specific address for the cemetery, which was founded in 1827.

Keller said OHS spearheaded the 1996 restoration because it had become “an abandoned and forgotten cemetery.”

“It had literally become overrun by trees and undergrowth,” Keller said.

O’Fallon Township Supervisor Gary Ahle said O’Fallon and Shiloh residents, and local history enthusiasts, should check out the site because it’s a part of local history.

“It would’ve been a shame had the two O’Fallon groups not worked together to restore the space,” Ahle said.

For the tune of about $1,000 annually, the township provides the much needed assistance to allow the OHS to actively oversee things like mowing, upkeep, repairs and improvements.

“They’ve done a heck of a job, and for that amount we allocate (at every April meeting), that’s really a lot of upkeep,” Ahle said.

“Since Dennis Seipp has recently very generously donated his services to mow the cemetery, we’re able to use some of the funds for other things to improve and beautify the cemetery. Before we used any of those funds on a John Mason Peck cenotaph, however, we wanted to make sure the township trustees were OK with it. It’s certainly an improvement, but we want to make sure we’re good stewards of the cemetery by asking first,” Keller said.

Deep-rooted history

“There is quite a bit of significance there. First, it is where the Rock Spring community began, which predates O’Fallon,” Keller said.

According to Keller, Peck was a well-known educator, missionary, historian and was the area’s first postmaster as well.

“You can find him at the local O’Fallon Post Office in a mural, surrounded by children, giving out mail to local residents, ” Keller said. “The visual is of him in his living room with children and family, and next to the fireplace sorting mail to give to residents.”

During that time period, Keller said it was common to find the pigeon hole, used to sort mail, near the fireplace in one’s home.

Peck not only left his footprint in O’Fallon, but other places such as Belleville and St. Louis, where he founded the First Baptist Church.

“He literally planted churches everywhere he went,” Keller said.

In December 1817, he arrived in St. Louis, but later settled in Rock Spring, making it his home in 1822.

“He planted his roots in the future O’Fallon area where he built his house, started a farm with his wife Sarah ‘Sally’ Peck, where they had children, and he founded Rock Spring Seminary,” Keller noted.

The Seminary, founded in 1827, predated McKendree University in Lebanon, IL., is often referred to as the first college in Illinois.

“McKendree is the oldest, still surviving college of Illinois, founded in 1828, the year after Peck founded Rock Spring Seminary in 1827, so it’s very interesting that two of Illinois’ oldest colleges (are) right here in O’Fallon,” Keller said.

In 1831, the seminary was moved to Alton and became Shurtleff College, or Alton Seminary, he said.

Rock Spring Seminary was destroyed in 1852 by a fire, while Peck was still alive.

Peck was also was very active in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, Keller added.

Although Peck was buried at Rock Spring Cemetery for a period of time, he was later exhumed and moved to Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

“His wife remains with Peck’s other family members at Rock Spring, though. A river divides them with him on one side of the Mississippi River, and she on the Illinois side,” Keller said.

It was thought at the time that Peck — along with other prominent pastors of the area — needed be laid to rest near the First Baptist Church of St. Louis.

The OHS thought it would be a good idea to have something to identify the cemetery’s founder.

Though Peck’s body had been moved, his legacy still remains, Keller said.

“He was an anchor of that community and the most famous and probably most important person to live Rock Spring,” Keller said. “So, if you stop by, you better say, ‘Hi.’”

According to Keller, the marker will look like an upright granite tombstone. It won’t stand higher than two feet.

“It will be placed next to his wife’s grave,” Keller said.

Sally Peck was one of the unsung heroes in her husband’s life, but often falls short of the credit she deserves, Keller said.

“In some ways, she is the reason his work was made possible. Someone had to stay home holding the fort, taking (care) of the farm and his children while he was out doing ‘God’s work,’” Keller said.