Voices from the Grave: Stories from the stones
By Kathi Kresol
Cemeteries have attracted people for as long as they have existed. Some are drawn to the place because they have a loved one that has been laid to rest there. Others want to experience the beautiful statues and artwork left as a lasting legacy.
But there is more to learn from tombs and graves than just names and dates. Each of the stones represent a life whether cut short or lived to a ripe old age. There is much to learn by looking closer into the lives of those who lie under the stones.
This is certainly true of the historic Twelve Mile Grove Cemetery. This small cemetery is located on Pecatonica Road close to Highway 20.
The first settlement in this area (Seward Township) was called Vanceburg. Scattered throughout the grove were log houses and the township consisted of a tavern, stage house, two stores and a blacksmith shop. The town was built as a stopping place for the stage coaches that traveled from Rockford to Freeport and Galena. Twelve Mile Grove was so named because it was twelve miles from the ford in Rockford.
Newspaper accounts of the settling of the area state that in 1836 a weary band of pioneers was traveling by covered wagon through the area. They were on their way out west when they wandered into a lovely spot in the grove by what is now Highway 20. The leader of the group was Joseph Vance. The settlement that sprang up would bear his name.
Ironically, Joseph would be the first buried in the little cemetery when he passed away on September 11, 1841.
One of the earliest stories of this little cemetery came from a collection of remembrances of old pioneers. It tells of a tragedy suffered by the Merchant family that once lived in the grove. It was a very hot night and the father of the family was trying to get his little ones some relief.
So he moved them onto the floor where it was a little cooler. The heat brought a fierce thunderstorm that included dangerous lightning. The lightning struck the chimney, traveled down the stove pipe until it reached all of those sleeping on the floor. Only the mother and the tiniest baby were left from the family of six. The lightning was so treacherous, it even killed a basket of puppies that the family dog had delivered just days before. The four family members were buried in a mass grave.
Then there is the strange story of the lovely Julianna Phelps. Julianna was the daughter of Mr. J. Phelps who lived in the town of Seward. She worked and lived in the Kelly home where she was the housekeeper. On August 11, 1875, Julianna was visiting at the Ostrander home when she
fell to the floor and had a seizure. She was carried back to the Kelly home where she lingered for two hours before passing away.
The Phelps family was heartbroken and in shock that the very healthy 20-yearold would die so suddenly. Her funeral and burial in the Twelve Grove Cemetery showed her family how much Julianna was loved and respected in the little community. Many of their neighbors came to pay their respects for the fallen girl.
Mr. Kelly brought Julianna’s trunk full of her personal things back to her parent’s home a few days after the funeral. Her grief stricken mother decided to go through the items and found an envelope with the word Mother written on it. At first Mrs. Phelps could not comprehend the words that were written on the letter inside. The newspapers ran the complete letter the next day.
“Mother – I die because I am tired of living. Kiss the children goodbye for me. I would like to see you once more, but no – I die tonight. When you get this I shall be dead. Goodbye forever – Julianna.”
When the awful truth dawned on Mrs. Phelps she and her husband shared their suspicions with the town doctor, Halsey S. Clark. Together they made the painful decision to exhume Julianna’s body. Her stomach was removed and sent to Rockford.
The only way to prove that Julianna had taken poison in that day was to take a portion of her stomach contents and feed them to a stray cat. The cat began to convulse and vomit much in the way that Julianna herself had.
Julianna was reburied in the quiet little grove. Though her manner of death was revealed to her family, Julianna took the reason for her suicide to her grave.
Cemeteries contain many such secrets. Some stories were once well known but with the passage of time, have been forgotten. The stones some broken and some with the words scrubbed away by wind and time. But these people and their stories will never be forgotten. There will always be curious visitors who will look beyond the stones to uncover their stories.
Perhaps local historian Charles A. Church said it best in his book, History of Rockford and Winnebago County.
“Love that survives the tomb has been called the purest kind of attribute to the soul. This love finds expression in the monuments erected over the graves of the dead. Our cemeteries have been made more beautiful by the cultivation of the artistic sense, and by a deeper realization of the
truth that death is but the doorway.” R.
Kathi Kresol is a local historian, author and speaker. She has shared her love of Rockford’s history for years and considers it an honor to research the stories of those who once called Rockford home. Please visit Kathi’s website at www.hauntedrockford. com for more of her stories and events.