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West Chicago's oldest cemetery to come alive with stories, music at annual event

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 12:22 p.m. CDT

WEST CHICAGO – On most nights, Oakwood Cemetery in West Chicago is quiet.

The city’s oldest cemetery is home to the graves of more than 1,545 West Chicago residents who were born as long ago as the late 1700s.

But on one night in October each year, the cemetery comes alive with candlelight, music and guests, as stories are shared of the dead who are no longer able to tell the tales themselves.

“It’s a way to honor the people who lived in town before,” City Museum Director Sara Phalen said.

This year marks the City Museum’s 24th annual Tales Tombstones Tell program, which will take place Friday and will feature costumed performers as former West Chicago residents.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, many of the featured historical figures are Civil War soldiers buried at Oakwood Cemetery. The program also will highlight the Currier family, whose pillared mansion still sits in West Chicago’s East Washington Historic District.

Throughout the years the event has been held, 113 past residents have been featured, some more than once, Phalen said.

The stories are based on extensive research. Some information has been with the City Museum for years, while other tidbits require extra digging by volunteer researcher Cheryl Waterman.

Waterman’s research has taken her online, to the archives of local libraries and even to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

One interesting story Waterman uncovered for this year’s event is that of Asa Lomax Gailey, a Confederate soldier who became a prisoner of war in the Chicago area.

After Gailey took an oath of allegiance to the United States when he was captured, he was left in the North while the rest of his company returned to the South as part of a prisoner exchange.

When the war ended, Gailey discovered his wife had been told he was dead. She remarried, and Gailey did the same, marrying a woman from West Chicago.

Since discovering this information and sharing it online, Waterman was contacted by one of Gailey’s Southern descendants who had been trying to determine his ancestor’s history.

This is one of several tales that will be shared at Tales Tombstones Tell, as guests make their way through Oakwood Cemetery.

The cemetery tours will begin at 6:30 p.m. and depart every 10 minutes. Each group will include about 20 people and the walk lasts for 45 minutes to an hour.

Attendees will visit seven sites in the cemetery, three of which will feature performances of Civil War-era music by local musicians.

The last tour will begin at 7:45 p.m.

After guests participate in the cemetery walk, they are welcome to enjoy refreshments at nearby St. Mary’s Parish, where information about each of the tales will be on display.

Tales Tombstones Tell is typically a popular event for the City Museum, drawing in about 250 to 500 people each year, depending on the weather, Phalen said.

About half of the guests were West Chicago residents last year, while others came from elsewhere in the Chicago area or even other states, she said.

Waterman said people come to the event because they’re curious, and the West Chicago attendees want to know more about their community.

“If you don’t know who you are, it’s hard to know where you’re going,” she said.

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