About three years ago, Dorothy Donley took her granddaughter, whom she was homeschooling, to the Old State Burial Ground and told her, “Each one of these headstones is like a page in a history book.”
Her granddaughter’s response was, “What difference does it make if you can’t read them,” Donley said.
“It wasn’t sarcastic, it was just an honest answer,” Donley said.
“And she’s right.”
Today, visitors to one of the state’s first burial grounds can read many of those headstones, thanks to a project that Donley initiated after that visit to the cemetery with her daughter.
But, Donley has not been satisfied with just cleaning headstones; she has spent countless hours researching burials in that cemetery and then documenting those burials.
And, her latest project is placing granite markers in a section of the cemetery for all of the 78 veterans buried there, a project that she is needing community support to complete. (See separate story)
The cemetery is the final resting site for many individuals who were key figures in infancy days of Vandalia … and the state of Illinois.
Those include William Greenup, who surveyed the National Road; Ferdinand Ernst, head of the Ernst Colony, a group of impoverished Europeans that settled in Vandalia; Elijah Berry, a territorial auditor and state auditor of public accounts who was commissioned a general in the Black Hawk War; and James Berry, son of Elijah Berry, one of the state’s first accomplished authors and painter, with his paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging in the Old State Capitol in Springfield.
Also buried there is Col. Lucien Greathouse, who fought under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War.
Also buried there is George Hazelgrove, whose plot is bordered by a wrought iron fence. In his will, Hazelgrove stipulated that his entire estate would be used for the upkeep of the cemetery.
“Back in 1819, they just started burying people here, then they turned it into a cemetery,” Donley said.
In September 2016, she researched to find a chemical that could be used to clean headstones without causing any damage.
Once that was acquired, she, along with others who decided to join her, periodically visited the cemetery to clean headstones.
Donley also began researching burials in the cemetery.
“I have a database that’s got every single headstone and every single scrap of information I could find about those people,” she said. “And, I’ve got a separate database for veterans.
Donley has had several resources. “When we clean the stones, we find a lot of information,” she said.
Also, she said, “I live on Ancestry (website). I do a search on the names and I search military records, people who lived in Vandalia, lived in Fayette County, some of the little towns around here.”
Another source was the recording of information on burials accomplished by the Fayette County Genealogical and Historical Society in the 1970s. “They were in no particular order, but it helps with missing information,” Donley said.
To date, Donley has documented more than 1,000 burials in the cemetery and compiled information about the burials into three-ring binders.
Donley has also marked off the main part of the cemetery into found sections, so you can find (the specific burial sites),” she said, adding that one of her next projects is to mark off the four major sections of the cemetery.
The work at the Old State Burial Ground has also included digging up headstones that were partially or completely buried, and piecing together broken ones.
The aboveground vault of Dr. Robert Homer Peebles had been vandalized and left in an open state. Donley procured funds from the Old Capitol, White and Ruemmelin foundations for a new, granite cover, and she and other volunteers dug up and pieced together the original cover.
During one workday, one of the most dedicated volunteers, high school student Eric Barenfanger was digging up a stone that was just almost completely buried.
“We have a long field probe we stick in the ground to search for other pieces. He (Barenfanger) started digging up the stone and we found five (other headstones).
“And they were engraved, and you could read them,” Donley said.
Instead of piecing together broken headstones and placing them upright, Donley and other volunteers are placing them flat, with a border around them.
City officials granted Donley’s request for a new sign at the eastern entrance of the cemetery, and donations were used for a flower garden bordered by pavers.
Donley also started the process of getting the Old State Burial Ground listed on the National Register of Historic Sites Places, but that project came to a halt when state historic sites were placed under the Department of Natural Resources “and everything changed,” she said. “I could still do it, but I would have to start all over with it.”
On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Donley and her volunteers place flags on the gravesites of veterans buried in the cemetery. Last year, she said, “someone came out and put four flags” around the gravesite of Greathouse. “It wasn’t any one of us,” Donley said.
And, she said, someone puts flowers on a Gratz gravesite every Memorial Day.
On days that she plans to work in the cemetery, Donley posts a request for assistance on her R.I.P. (Restoration in Progress) page on Facebook.
“If I get somebody, I get somebody,” she said. “I wish I had a regular crew.”
But she does have some regular volunteers, including Barenfanger (and sometimes his sister and parents), Dave and Diane Mayfield, and Betsy Brannon Mills, a Vandalia native who now lives in Massachusetts but makes regular treks back to her hometown.
Also participating are Gene and Sharon Jordanby. “Gene personally went around and cleaned all of the veterans’ stones (about 40). That was his project, and he was going to do it, no matter what,” Donley said.
For three years, there has been a Community Action Day financially supported by Thrivent Financial. Volunteers turning out that day always include some youth.
On those days, Donley said, the students not only work, they learn.
“They don’t get to leave until they get a history lesson,” Donley said. “They’re going to get something.”
And, as Charles Barenfanger said during a recent workday, “There’s so much history there.”
And, Dave Mayfield said, “There’s a history lesson every time you come out here.”
As a youth, Donley could not have ever thought of being involved in such a project.
When she was a student, she said, history was “just memorizing all of these worthless dates. It made no sense to me.”
Now, she says, “I wish I could be buried here.”
For the most part, there have been no burials at the Old State Burial Ground since 1933, “because they don’t know where people are buried. They kept digging into existing graves,” Donley said.
There have been some burials after that time, she said, those occurring when a family bought a plot many decades earlier and someone from that family died.
While she’s pleased with what has been done so far, Donley said, “There’s still so much to be done.”
Asked to estimate how many hours she has put into the cemetery project, Donley said, “I have no idea.
“It seems like a lifetime,” she said.