Researcher's quest writes new chapter for historic Lake County cemetery
A researcher's quest for information about his ancestors drew him to an abandoned graveyard and prompted a move to refresh one of the oldest cemeteries in Lake County.
In coming weeks, scrub and brush will be cleared and the grounds of the Fort Hill Cemetery tidied in advance of the transfer of responsibility from Lake County to Avon Township.
"Somebody needs to take care of it. It's the right thing to do," said Township Supervisor Terry Wilke, who also represents the area on the Lake County Board.
The cemetery, located near Round Lake, consists of adjoining properties on the north side of Route 120 just east of Fairfield Road. It was established in 1844 and contains the remains of many early settlers and their families, as well as a Civil War soldier.
Among those buried at the cemetery are six relatives of McHenry resident Vern Paddock, including his great, great, great grandmother, Lucy Backus Paddock, who came to the area from Vermont and died in 1860. Generations of Paddocks farmed in Lake County for 150 years and Vern has developed a passion for genealogy and history.
"I'd been trying to find out who owns or maintains the cemetery but wasn't having any luck," he said.
A chain of events beginning last year prompted the pending cleanup and property transfer. Paddock said he had been in contact with cousins from Florida, who visited the cemetery last summer and found family graves and markers covered by untended brush. They decided to take action.
"The next day, they came out here with chain saws," he said. "That's what spurred me on. Something has to be done, not so much for my family but the historical value."
The cemetery is comprised of three separate properties accessed by a semicircular gravel drive off Route 120, but there are no discernible boundaries. A post remains near the road but the identifying sign is long gone. Some stones have toppled, sunk or cracked and others are immersed in brush.
The easternmost part of the property is operated as St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery and owned by the Catholic Bishop of Chicago. The middle and western pieces have been under the jurisdiction of Lake County, to which the property was conveyed in 1847, and the defunct Fort Hill Cemetery Association.
The cemetery association dissolved decades ago and its records lost. But Paddock wasn't aware of that as he sought to improve conditions.
"I didn't know where to go. Do I form my own organization? Clean it up myself?" Paddock asked.
He eventually was referred to Wilke and the situation was untangled.
State law allows for properties to be transferred if one entity asks and the other grants the request. Avon Township approved the measure last month and the county board did so this past Tuesday.
"It's an abandoned cemetery and we just can't leave it," Wilke said. And since the association no longer exists, the township also will maintain that piece.
"This is another instance of us being in the cemetery business and we didn't know it," county board member Chuck Bartels said before the vote. "This happened back in 1847, so it's been awhile."
There appears to be a fair amount of vacant area but no one is certain what lies beneath, so future burials are unlikely. Wilke said early graves sometimes didn't have head stones or used wooden crosses that have disintegrated.
"We don't know what's out there and it's best to err on the side of caution," Wilke said.
Meanwhile, Paddock continues his work. The number of documented grave sites has increased from 150 to 381 as a result of his research.
"I actually had to crawl through bushes to find gravestones," he said. "It was like a mission."
He is assembling genealogies for those put to rest at Fort Hill from 1844 to the 1920s.
"What I've been trying to do is document as much as I can to let people know there was a history out here," Paddock added.
The research will be put to good use by the township.
"It's pretty crazy and interesting," Wilke said.
"He's done a lot of the work we'll rely on."