DOWNERS GROVE – A new foundation is looking for community help to restore two of the village's most historic and unkempt cemeteries.
Despite holding the remains of some of the area's founding families and leaders, years of neglect and vandalism have left the Oak Hill and Oak Crest cemeteries in need of restoration.
"The saddest part is all the tombstones that have been destroyed," said Oak Hill/Oak Crest Foundation Board Member Lois Sterba. "The kids have come in here, and they have knocked the impossible things over."
The older of the two, Oak Hill, is the oldest cemetery in Downers Grove and houses the graves of some of Downers Grove's prominent early families and pioneers, along with the graves of some 50 Civil War veterans. It was founded by the Stanley family when Dexter Stanley buried his son-in-law Luther Ferrar in 1836, Sterba said.
The two cemeteries sit side-by-side in unincorporated Downers Grove and Lisle at the corner of Howard and Glenview avenues.
Walking through the cemeteries, many 19th and early 20th century grave markers lay on their sides and backs. Weeds and brush have overtaken or obscured some plots completely.
"Over the years this has just fallen to pot," Sterba said. "And it needs a lot of work."
The foundation was created this spring by Downers Grove Township, which owns the cemeteries. It is currently looking to add members to the board and garner funds and volunteers in the community to help fix stones, cut back the brush and remove several large dead trees.
"The township only has enough money to cut the grass," Sterba said. "They don't have money in their budget to do this, so it has to be done by concerned citizens."
Township Director of General Assistance Gary Ostrowski said the last estimate it received to fix all the stones came in at about $30,000.
"What we'd like to do is get some corporate sponsors, see what they can do, do some fundraisers," Ostrowski said. "I've been trying for years to get this going."
Many of the stone's names read like a history guide of Downers Grove. In addition to 160 years of Stanley family members, there are members of the Bush and Downers families, including Guy Bush, the village president from 1896-98 and six-term representative in the Illinois House.
Perhaps the most notable grave in either cemetery is that of Lottie Holman O'Neill, the first woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly. She was born in 1878, inaugurated in 1923, and died in 1967.
"She was a pioneer woman," Sterba said. "She was for the eight-hour work day and women's rights and all the things like that."
O'Neill's grave is in good shape. But the old, tall and thin gravestones from the 19th Century that teenagers are able to use leverage to push over are not easy to right.
Often times a new base is needed, and then a boom crane is required to mount the still-heavy stone properly, Kapsa Monument owner Tom Kapsa said.
Kapsa monument has done work with other restorative efforts in towns such as Lombard. He said that fixed stones can often act as a deterrent to vandalism itself.
"The more dilapidated it is, the more it invites vandalism," he said.
Ostrowski said next year he would like to see possible tours or Edgar Allen Poe readings with coffee or other refreshments at the cemeteries as a fundraiser.
Oak Hill is still an active cemetery, though all the grave plots are currently owned by families. Oak Crest still has several available plots for sale.