(Courtesy Debbie Preiser)

The season of All Hallow’s Eve events is a good time for a walkabout in one of our many local cemeteries — not for a fright but a history lesson, as told this year by Civil War veterans, buried in our own backyard: the bucolic grounds of Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

That is the aim of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest’s 23rd annual Tales of the Tombstones – this time marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As always, the educational, entertaining cemetery walk will be staged on the third Sunday of October (the 19th this year), from 1 to 4 p.m. on the grounds (enter at 863 Desplaines Ave.). Admission is $15 ($10 for Historical Society members). Ticket sales end at 2 p.m., which is when tour groups start stepping off every 10 minutes from inside the gates of Forest Home Cemetery, just south of the Eisenhower Expressway, a short walk from the Blue Line el.

Adding interest and authenticity to this year’s event will be Civil War re-enactors who will tell all, including, for starters, “how Illinois won the war for the Union,” said Frank Lipo, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“In 1861 at the start of the Civil War, Oak Park and River Forest were just little spots on the map, with only a couple of hundred people in the area. Having said that, a number of men went off and served, and in some cases died, in the Civil War conflict,” he said. 

To commemorate that, they engaged the interpretive talents of Civil War re-enactors Brian Flora, his wife Kay Kuhlman and their son Daniel. “So people should come on this walk to learn how the Civil War did affect people in this area. It was the Civil War vets who settled here, and then established a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) post, so the people who lived here were indeed impacted by the Civil War.”

Flora explained that the Grand Army of the Republic or GAR was formed in Decatur, Illinois shortly after the Civil War by Benjamin F. Stephenson, and it became the largest organization of Union veterans from the Civil War, whose purpose was to promote comradeship among veterans.

The GAR also worked to increase pensions and assist war widows and orphans, and maintained homes for old soldiers.

Stepping into the role of grieving Civil War-era widow will be Lee Conte, “who in her seven years as a cemetery walk volunteer, has been known for making her own authentic costuming, down to the undergarments,” Lipo said.

Another stop on the tour will be played by Flora, channeling the life and times of Maj. Wilbur Crummer, the local Civil War veteran who was, according to an obituary in the Oak Parker newspaper on Feb. 21, 1920, “shot through the right lung by a sharpshooter while making out an ordinance report on July 2, 1863 at Vicksburg.” Afterwards, Crummer lived more than 50 years to tell about it, in a house down the way from the current site of Pleasant Home, Flora said.

“After the war, Civil War veterans came together as a band of brothers in the Grand Army of the Republic. There is even a Grand Army of the Republic plot out in the cemetery, and I, as Wilbur Crummer, am buried under it,” Flora jokes. “So Wilbur was hard core and buried under a siege mortar from Vicksburg.” 

Along with Crummer are buried seven other Civil War veterans in the memorial lot. 

Historical re-enactors

Other spirits will be climbing out of their graves to speak, including a confederate soldier who turned his back on his life in Michigan to fight for the South in Texas; Anson Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s grandfather, who left the Land of Lincoln to lead a troop of African-American soldiers in the South during the war, and Conte, as a bereaved widow, dressed all in black, demonstrating the stages of Victorian mourning.

“For authenticity, I had to specifically wear a black bonnet because if I wore a hat, it meant I didn’t love my husband,” said Conte, who noted her character is a composite of what a Civil War widow would have been. “I made my bonnet, and I made the lace, which is 100 percent cotton. And with tatting and tiny little beads at every junction of the lace, I know where to attach it to the veils, so it will be spaced properly. I am in full mourning, with a full black veil over my face, because no one is supposed to see what I look like, but I will take it off when I speak.”

For fun and flair, Lipo said, an Abraham Lincoln look-alike will be added, and a pup tent will be set among the tombstones to afford the chance to have an interactive chat with an underage Union soldier who will show off early 1860s props, thanks to Civil War re-enactor Daniel Flora, now 26. Brian says his son started participating in Civil War re-enactments as a drummer boy at age 14.

“Oak Park after the Civil war was one off the places that had a population surge related to veterans and their families relocating here,” said Laurel McMahon, a longtime Historical Society volunteer and resident of River Forest. “A lot of those founders built up Oak Park and River Forest. If you walk through the cemetery now, you will notice the monuments there, even small ones, will have the regiment in which the man fought during the war because that was a turning point in his life, his family and his future. 

“The cemetery is full of veterans. There are hundreds of them buried at Forest Home.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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