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Yesterday's Heroes

by Brian “Fox” Ellis

Midwestern Family Sept./Oct. 2006
 
As autumn colors blaze in the ancient oaks and maples of Illinois’ older cemeteries, costumed characters walk among the tombstones telling the tales of Illinois History. October is the month when both Springdale Cemetery in Peoria and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington host their annual cemetery tours.
 
A cemetery is a place where the dead are buried, and a place where history lives. History is palpable.
 
These tours offer family-oriented entertainment that immerses the audience in the drama that is our collective story. Springdale and Evergreen Cemeteries are more than just the repositories of bones, they are the keepers of bona fide heroes. Both cemeteries hire professional actors in period clothing to portray dynamic characters through historically accurate scripts. Both programs also sell out most of their presentations and reservations are strongly encouraged. Bloomington’s cemetery tour is hosted by Illinois Voices Theatre; Peoria’s tour is hosted by Prairie Folklore Theatre.
 
SPRINGDALE CEMETERY
 
A guided walking tour of Peoria’s Historic Springdale Cemetery is an opportunity to stroll through the past and meet characters famous and infamous. As a modern visitor, it is easy to step back in time when a costumed character steps out from behind a tombstone.
 
Prairie Folklore Theatre aims to raise the bar for this type of tour by staging historically accurate musical theater that is informative and inspiring. Weaving history with poetry, music and drama, eight to ten actors each recite a six to eight minute monologue. Barry Cloyd, co-founder of Prairie Folklore Theatre, said, “We try to stretch beyond local history with an emphasis on national and international stories. World history makes more sense when you can connect it to a real person who once lived here.”
 
COMPELLING CHARACTERS
 
This year the tour will focus on Soldier Hill and the Civil War. Some of the characters portrayed include: a drummer boy who enlisted when he was twelve and then became a music teacher at Peoria High, a nurse who served on the front lines, a member of the colored troops who was a role model for Denzel Washington’s character in the movie “Glory!” and a member of the Illinois cavalry who just might ride into the cemetery on his horse!
 
One of our goals is to give visitors a taste of everyday life in the war as well as a few of the stories of what was happening on the home front. For example, Soldier Hill was actually built by a group of women who moves thousands of baskets of dirt to give the fallen dead a place of honor in the cemetery.
 
With invaluable aid from the Peoria Public Library and the Peoria Historical Society, Prairie Folklore Theatre helps each actor do their own research. This ensures that actors know more than their eight minute monologue. There is an emphasis on first person, primary source material, “from the horse’s mouth.” Old letters, journals, and diaries are always sought. Newspaper accounts, obituaries, and the reminiscing of folks who may have known the character are also helpful. The trick is to turn these notes into dynamic stories.
 
For example, I will portray a college boy whose letters home were published weekly in the Peoria newspapers. Though he was born and raised in Peoria, he was a student at Oberlin College. When the war erupted, he enrolled in the Ohio Infantry. His letters share important information about several of the battles he fought, as well as colorful descriptions of camp life, singing around the fire, the food the men ate, and the flavor of everyday life for a soldier.
 
As with all the stories, Prairie Folklore Theatre strives for historical accuracy and something more, giving the audience a personal encounter with important events in our past.
 
A MAJESTIC SETTING
 
Founded in 1854 and reborn in 2003, Peoria’s Springdale Cemetery includes museum quality stone carvings worthy of European royalty, lawns well manicured lined with 200-300 year old trees, a gorgeous view of the Illinois River Valley and a resident deer and wild turkey population. Not only are members of the Triebel family buried here, but Fritz Triebel, a local sculpture who studied in France and Italy, carved several of the more stunning monuments. After years of neglect, Springdale is under new and vigorous management. This is an active and working cemetery; though more than 77,000 people rest in peace, there are still more than a fifty thousand burial sites available for purchase.
 
EVERGREEN MEMORIAL CEMETERY
 
The moment you step into Evergreen Cemetery you step back in time. This will be their fourteenth year, making this one of the oldest cemetery tours in Illinois. Laura Wheaton, a staff member for the McLean County Historical Museum, said, “Our walk is a museum program built in collaboration with Judy Brown from Illinois Voices.”
 
Illinois Voices Theatre Artistic Director Judy Brown hires the writers, helps to create the scripts, and directs the actors. Using eight actors in period clothing they cover a wide period of time. Guests are escorted in this walking tour past beautiful tombstones and the guide shares a bit of the history of the cemetery and introduces the next character.
 
THE CHARACTERS
 
The Discovery Walk strives to line up a list of characters that represent the diverse voices of Illinois History. This year’s characters include: June Crandall a working man and socialist agitator; Goodman Ferre, one of the most well known members of the Masonic lodge; and Eva Jones, who  broke a barrier in Bloomington politics and distinguished herself as a person of high principle.
 
Brown said, “These characters come back to life as people, not just a photograph, not just a list of dates or a list of facts. We attempt to get into their lives. We try to determine what kind of people they were.” These characters not only illustrate important moments in history, but they gave listeners gifts of wisdom gleaned from the struggles and triumphs of their life. Isn’t this the goal of all great history lessons?
 
THE RESEARCH
 
Researchers look for that one pivotal moment in the character’s life and the writers flesh it out as a context for the bigger story. Wheaton said, “We are looking for a good controversy that will tell a good story.” Brown added, “We look for primary source material so the actors can tell their story in the words of the person they are portraying. Through rehearsals the script is refined. The final scripts are then vetted by the museum staff.”
 
It is this tightrope walk between dramatic tension and a factual account that makes the cemetery tour dynamic.
 
THE SETTING
 
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery is a classically designed rectangle bisected with both oval and diagonal pathways. It was originally two separate cemeteries, one public and the other private. They were united in 1963 when the City of Bloomington took over their care. As is the case with so many other older cemeteries it deteriorated. Increased vandalism and decreased maintenance created a weed choked eye-sore. Like Springdale Cemetery, hard-work and dedication on the part of scores of volunteers rejuvenated the grounds.
 
The Experience
 
Courageous characters, dramatic tales, and elegant costumes, all in an historic setting, these tours offer something for everyone. Grandparents and grandchildren will both have something to talk about on the way home. These are stories that leave folks inspired and wanting to learn more. Do you dare tread with the ghosts of the past this fall?
 
THE SCHEDULE
 
Springdale Cemetery, Peoria, Illinois October 5-6, 12-13 4:30 – 7:00 PM. The last tour starts at 6:00 PM. October 7-8, 14-15 1:00 - 5:00 PM. The last tour starts at 3:30 PM. Tours depart from the front gate every 15 minutes. Please call 309-689-8000 for reservations and to schedule school groups, bank groups and church groups. Prairie Folklore Theatre is also offering a special performance of “Civil War Ghosts,” a blend of music and ‘true’ ghost stories on October 14 at 8:00 PM Springdale Cemetery is on Prospect Road half a mile south of War Memorial Drive.
 
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois September 30, October 1 and 7-8, tours begin at 11:00 and 2:00 and last for two hours. October 2-5, is a special week of school tours. Please call 309-827-0428 for reservations. Evergreen is just south of downtown Bloomington at 302 E. Miller St.