From a bullet to the chest at the Battle of Vicksburg, to the Eastland Ship disaster in 1915, to the 1929 stock market crash, participants in this year’s 22nd annual Tale of the Tombstone Cemetery Walk last Sunday met some of the “survivors” who rest in Forest Home Cemetery.
The award-winning cemetery tour has been a fundraiser for the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest since shortly after its inception, said Frank Lipo, executive director.
As they do every year in the cool fall weather, visitors tromped across the lush landscape of Forest Home, 863 Desplaines Ave., to hear costumed characters telling tour groups the stories of their lives — and demises.
“This cemetery is important to local history, but also to regional history,” Lipo said.
Each year the walk finds ways to touch on shifting American lifestyles.
“Changes in American life get reflected in cemeteries like everything else,” said Lipo, who told visitors of the evolution of funeral monuments — from vertical stones and “pensive maiden” statues, to “rustic” monuments shaped like tree trunks, to in-ground “golf course” flat-grave markers, influenced by Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.
Lipo also pointed out different materials used for monuments. Costly marble has been eaten away by acid rain, dissolving features of statues and obscuring words on the gravestones. Mid-priced granite maintains detail longer, but the low-budget, often hollow “white bronze” (or zinc) monuments, manufactured by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Conn., maintain their crisp details best through the decades.
The tour began in 1991 when Dr. Frank Orland, Forest Park Historical Society founder, asked for help restoring the cracked monument of River Forest’s first resident, Ashbel Steele (1794-1861). Steele was Cook County coroner and later sheriff in the 1830s.
It cost about $5,000 to replace the marble monument with granite, said Lipo, but the tour was so successful it carried on and became one of the year’s biggest fundraisers for the historical society.
Tour participants passed graves of local notables Henry Austin, James Scoville, Oak Park pioneers Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings, Forest Park founder Ferdinand Haase and Ed Roos (of Roos factory fame).
Civil War survivor
At the Grand Army of the Republic memorial, tour participants heard the story of
Civil War veteran Wilbur Fisk Crummer (1843-1920) and his second wife, Emma. From Galena, he joined the 45th Illinois Infantry at age 18 and survived the battle of Shiloh. He took a bullet to the chest at the Battle of Vicksburg and was rejected from the surgeon’s tent as being too injured to survive. But survive he did, propped against a tree overnight, and he went on work as an employee of Chicago Title and Trust and raise a family in Oak Park at 143 Kenilworth Ave.
“I survived another 57 years,” said actor Brian Flora. Wife Emma was played by Kay Kuhlman, who described her widowhood years as a college student and later as a respected designer.
Eastland ship disaster
Bob Keller played Rudolph Stork, a Forest Parker and machinist at Western Electric in Cicero who survived the tragic Eastland ship disaster of July 24, 1915. Stork brought his two children, a son and daughter to attend what he thought would be a company pleasure cruise and picnic. His daughter, Gertrude, 15, drowned, and Keller described searching through a makeshift morgue of more than 800 people. There were 67 burials in Forest Home cemetery from the Eastland that week in July 1915.
“Sometimes surviving is worse,” Keller said sadly.
William G. Grunow, the 26-year-old “wonder of Wall Street” told a story of financial survival.
“I was a high-tech millionaire for a while,” said actor Kevin Bry.
Clutching a cigar on the steps of his water-front mausoleum on the banks of the Des Plaines River, Grunow told of his rise to riches as CEO of the Majestic Radio Company. The fine-furniture, high-end radio sets represented the height of luxury, and so did his mansion at 915 Franklin in River Forest.
“I had two bowling alleys, a swimming pool, and [the house] was later owned by Tony ‘the Big Tuna’ Accardo,” Bry said.
But the 1929 stock market crash destroyed the stock value of Majestic Radio and the company went bankrupt.
“After the board ousted me, I thought I was finished in business,” Bry said. But Grunow reinvented himself as a poultry king. He created a state-of-the-art chicken farm on 500 acres near Lake Geneva, which he had previously used as a private golf course. The Val-Lo-Will chicken company (named after children Valerie, Lois and William) had 50 retail stores in Illinois, including one on Marion Street in Oak Park.
“I went from a high-tech millionaire to ruin — but I survived because I tried again,” Bry said. “And you can too. Good luck.”
Serial killer and landlady
Cemetery tour favorite Belle Gunness (1859 – ?) played by Nancy Greco, was also a “survivor.” Born in Norway, Gunness came to the U.S. as a servant. During her career as a murderess, she is said to have killed 20-40 people, including her first two husbands, her own children, and a series of boarders on her farm in La Porte, Ind. She was said to be motivated to kill by her victims’ insurance money and the need to eliminate witnesses.
The headless woman found in Gunness’ burned farmhouse was buried in Forest Home, “but she was five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than I,” Greco said. Investigators exhumed Gunness’ remains a few years ago, Greco added, but the results were inconclusive. Gunness was allegedly seen in California, but that was never confirmed. “They really don’t know for sure,” Greco said.
Suffrage and escaping the hangman
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of female suffrage, society ladies Elizabeth Hilton Charlton (1861-1912) and Luela “Lulu” Belnap (1867-1940), played by actors Diane Pingle and Ellyn Levell, told the stories of founding the 19th Century Club and the Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery.
“Club ladies are hard to resist,” said Pingle, smiling and offering tea. “We defeated bitter opponents to women’s suffrage,” she said. Charlton, who died in 1912 didn’t live to see the day when women could vote for president, Pingle said.
Actor, critic and historian Doug Deuchler played Haymarket agitator Michael Schwab, who escaped the hangman’s noose by proving he was miles away from the riot and explosions of May 6, 1886. His co-defendants, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, George Engle, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe, did not survive. Schwab still went to prison but was later pardoned by Gov. John P. Altgeld in 1893, though by then his health had deteriorated, Deuchler said.
Iroquois fire bystander becomes volunteer
Episcopal Bishop Rev. Samuel Fallows (1835-1922), played by actor Mike Stewart, said he was casually walking on Randolph Street, Dec. 30, 1903, when he encountered the burning ruins of the Iroquois Theater fire and heard a cry for volunteers to help with the rescue and removal of the dead.
Five-hundred and seventy five people, mostly women and children, died when a fire swept through the theater at a holiday matinee of the musical “Mr. Bluebeard,” starring Eddie Foy.
“I had seen the gory fields of the Civil War, but nothing prepared me for this horrible scene,” the bishop said.
Fallows penned the introduction of a history of the fire, which called for panic bars, outward swinging doors, marked clear exits and the elimination of standing room. Fire-safety reform laws were implemented all over the world, said actress Lee Conte, playing the bishop’s wife, Lucy Huntington Fallows.
“Someone has to survive to tell the story of those who didn’t,” Conte said.