Tuesday, August 20, 2013

DeKalb County Cemetery, 1881

Hidden among sprawling shopping centers on Sycamore Road in DeKalb is the DeKalb County Cemetery, a former poorhouse cemetery or "Potter's Field" for the burial of indigent or otherwise unknown people, often transients who were wandering through the county and died. If I hadn't been walking by to explore a nearby trail in a forest preserve, I wouldn't know of its existence. There are many markers with names and dates, and many without. The proximity of this tiny, graceful cemetery and its unremarked-upon history to honking traffic, endless parking lots, and the likes of Michael's Arts and Crafts, Pier One, and Qdoba is striking, to say the least.


Here's a small article about this cemetery at a site devoted to the history of Poorhouses, "tax-supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves."
They were started as a method of providing a less expensive (to the taxpayers) alternative to what we would now days call "welfare"—what was called "outdoor relief" in those days. People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor ( sometimes also called a Poor Master)—an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poorhouse instead of being given relief while they continued to live independently. Sometimes they were sent there even if they had not requested help from the Overseer of the Poor. That was usually done when they were found guilty of begging in public, etc.


Unknown said...

I realize you wrote this a few years back; I happened to find it when I was looking up info about this cemetery. Like you, I found this cemetery by accident, I was killing time while my daughter was taking her GRE test in Sycamore, (we're from Crystal Lake, IL) and decided to do a bit of shopping. I went into Michael's, and later after putting my purchases in my car, I saw the sign for the cemetery. How odd, I thought--I had to explore. I walked over and saw this quiet and plain little cemetery, filled with graves marked 'unknown', and like you, I took pictures of these. I was amazed to see a cemetery with stores all around it. I've been working for a few years on my family tree and have become more familiar with cemeteries than I ever imagined I would be, and this has to be the most unusual and lonely little one I've seen so far. Anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge your piece here, which I enjoyed and can identify with. Thank you! FYI, I'm not the most religious person, but I did say a prayer for all of the souls who are represented there.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for writing! A truly amazing place.

Hope your daughter did well on her GRE!

Anonymous said...

For people not from the DeKalb area, you would not know that the area from the cemetery going north was open, no strip malls in the 60's, which had many buildings on it which was the county poorhouse. As the residents died, they were buried on the property which is the present location of the cemetery. As the years went on, the poorhouse closed, property sold for strip malls and houses. Cemetery stayed. My brother and I came across the cemetery this afternoon. I forgot it was here.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for this info, anon.

Annandale said...

I worked at the DeKalb County Nursing home in the late 70's. The home was located approximately where the Michael's store is now. One day on a break I wondered into a weedy overgrown patch of ground - it was not the trim, well cared for cemetery you see today. It was all but abandoned. The only markers were small round cement disks bearing only numbers and there were two or three decaying monuments.I have always wondered how they came to be there. Then, sometime in (probably) the early 90s[?] someone must have noticed [maybe when the County Home was demolished?] And the end result was well maintained space you see today. An odd footnote to the history of DeKalb.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for writing, Annandale. Interesting!