Though it’s been a hectic October for me, I’ve been squeezing in fun fall activities whenever I can. Two weeks ago, I took my 14-year-old niece, Tessa, to a pumpkin patch and corn maze in Tinley Park.
This Sunday, I was thrilled that we could do something befitting of the season much closer to home – the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest was hosting their 20th annual Tale of the Tombstones walk at Forest Home Cemetery.
I know it sounds strange, but Forest Home Cemetery is actually one of my favorite places in Forest Park. Three years ago, I went on a tour hosted by Rich Vitton, of the Historical Society of Forest Park, and ever since then I’ve been eager to learn as much as I can about it.
When I heard the rain on Sunday morning, I was worried that the event would be cancelled, but by the time Tessa and her dad, Marcus, came over, the clouds were clearing. It got sunnier still as we wound our way through the cemetery with our tour guide.
The guide pointed out the headstones and monuments of significant people in local history – like the Kettlestrings, Oak Park’s founders – and shared interesting facts with us: Did you know anyone can be buried at Forest Home, regardless of religious affiliation, or if you committed crimes?
There were also six “conversations and confrontations” with costumed performers taking on the roles of local historical figures, many of whom were buried at Forest Home. I went in thinking that this part of the tour might be cheesy, but the actors really got into their roles, and entertained and provided good information. For example, the actress who played Sophy Dreschler, the undertaker’s wife, truly seemed moved to tears when she introduced us to the young victims of cholera, smallpox, the Eastland Disaster, and the Iroquois Fire.
My highlight of the tour was the conversation entitled “CSI: Forest Home,” about female serial killer Belle Gunness and murderous Chicago sausage king, Adolph Luetgert, some of the most infamous people buried in Forest Home. Possibly not in Belle’s case, though, as forensic scientists have yet to conclusively prove that she is actually buried in her unmarked grave. I’d heard these two stories before, but the actors really brought them to life … No pun intended.
There was also a fiery debate between Henry Austin, Sr., a politician who was a strong proponent of the temperance movement, and Sophia Kohn, a German immigrant who owned the last tavern in Oak Park before Austin made it a dry town. Sophia spoke with great passion about how her saloon was a gathering place and so important to the people. The actress played the role so well that I almost wanted to invite her out for a beer afterward and tell her not to worry, Oak Park’s neighbor, Forest Park, has kept those gathering places alive.
There was more of a focus on Oak Park history than Forest Park history since this tour is run by their historical society rather than ours, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting event.
If you missed this tour, or like me, are always eager to learn more, sign up at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 Jackson Blvd., for the next cemetery tour, on Oct. 29, at 11 a.m. This one will employ smartphone technology. It’s a great way to celebrate our local history and Halloween at the same time.
Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.