Girl Scout Troop 44 gathers in a prairie just west of Springfield. For the past year they've been restoring a cemetery that saw its last burial in the 19th century, but shoulder-high grass had long covered all traces of these resting places.
The graveyard is important because one of Springfield's founding families is buried here. In 1818 Elisha Kelley came upon land that would eventually become part of Springfield and was so impressed he walked all the way to North Carolina to convince his family to follow him back. His brother John built Springfield's first cabin at the corner of what is now Jefferson and Klein streets. Later he would erect Springfield's first courthouse.
After John died in 1823, his relatives moved west to an area north of Curran, east of New Berlin, where they designated a plot of land as the family cemetery. John's father, Henry--a veteran of the Revolutionary War--is buried there, along with B. H. Robinson and Peter Woods, related to the Kelley family by marriage, who both fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Today, the cemetery is owned by Curran Township, and the land surrounding it is owned by Eloise Marr. Some believe that part of the Kelley family home comprises a section of a more modern, expanded house occupied by Eloise's son, Robert Marr.
This weekend descendants of the Kelley family will meet with members of Troop 44 to rededicate the cemetery. Pastor Ray Greenfield from the First Christian Church in Rushville will officiate a private memorial service.
On this hot August morning, Girl Scout Jessica Reynolds pokes around with a rake and discovers the headstone of William Rigg, affectionately known to all as "Baby Willy."
"He is the youngest person buried here," explains Reynolds. "He died after living three months and 11 days.
"The footstone was found soon after we started, but we didn't want to go sticking shovels into the ground looking for other stones. This was out of respect to the cemetery. We didn't want to disturb the ground."
"Back in the 1800s, they put headstones about six feet to the west of the footstones," says troop leader Sally Restrepo. "This marked the position of the grave so people digging new graves did not disturb the ground above someone already buried. The feet were always placed to the east, and the inscription on the headstone always faced to the west, into the sunset."
Restrepo grew up nearby. "We used to ride horses past here all the time, though we never came across the cemetery. General Grant and his troops camped and marched south across what today is part of my dad's farm. There used to be an old stagecoach stop nearby, and there were rumors of gold buried there. My friend Rita McCarthy discovered that our family farm was once owned by Kelley family members, and she told me about the cemetery."
McCarthy conducted her research in 1986. "I did a lot of interviews with people who lived in this area. One of those was Mr. Lindel Paulen, the father of Eloise Marr. He was 85 at the time. He told me about the area and showed me the cemetery. You couldn't tell there was a cemetery there, the grass was so tall."
"Troop 44 started discussing the idea of turning it into a project in 1997 and in 2001," Restrepo says. "Last year, my senior high school girls had to take on a project like this to qualify for their Gold Award, equivalent to the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout. I had seven girls, plus parents and family. In 2002, they put on their work gloves."
Restrepo credits earlier research by the Daughters of the American Revolution and Dr. Floyd Barringer, who found a map, dated in 1874, identifying the people buried there. When the troop first arrived, several headstones were discovered in a corner of the fenced-in area. Since footstones have the initials of the person, matching them to the headstones turned out to be relatively easy.
They returned in the spring of 2003 with high hopes. They had a new ally in Katie Spindell, a Kelley family descendant and a genealogical researcher who moved to Springfield from California in November 2002. She already knew about the cemetery and last year visited the site with the permission of Eloise Marr. "I anticipated that I'd find the cemetery covered in weeds and who knows what. Instead, I found obvious signs of restoration in progress, and soon after I was introduced to the Girl Scouts." She met with some of the girls at the Lincoln Library. She shared her research and recruited other Kelley family members to the cause.
Restrepo has great expectations for the future of Kelley Cemetery. The new Centennial Park is located just on the other side of a cornfield to the south. A bike trail, now being planned on a former railroad bed, cuts across a corner of the property, just a few yards from the cemetery. "It's just a gorgeous site," Restropo says. "I'm hoping that someday there will be permission given for a right-of-way to get down here."
Who was John Kelley?
In 1818 John Kelley came with his brother Elisha and father Henry to the land that would become the town of Calhoun and, later, Springfield. John built the first cabin here and the first courthouse close to Spring Creek. Elijah Iles was a boarder in that cabin. John died on October 20, 1823, before the land was surveyed and the identity of the settlement established. He was buried first in the original city cemetery near Spring Creek and then reburied at Oak Ridge Cemetery
Curtis Mann, a librarian at the Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection, says Kelley had never purchased the land near the corner of Jefferson and Klein. He had built his cabin back when squatting was as good as buying. But after the government surveyed the land and divided it into tracts, Mann says, "Kelley was poised to buy that land, which would have made him a founder of the settlement that became Springfield. With the land sale coming up on November 6, 1823, he was just days away from being able to purchase the land in the northwest part of Springfield. Instead, he died."
Pascal Enos, Elijah Iles, and Thomas Cox ended up buying Kelley's lot and all the adjoining land, a total of 640 acres. Just before then, Illinois Governor Edward Coles prevented the sale of a plot farmed by John Taylor. But local citizens sent a petition to Washington, D.C., asking them to allow Taylor to buy his farm. Taylor is now considered--along with Enos, Iles, and Cox--one of the founders of Springfield.
Katie Spindell feels her relative merits greater recognition as the first white man to reside here on a permanent basis. "Iles has a street named after him, Kelley doesn't--and there should be."