Forest Park history was once part of the curriculum at the Forest Park Middle School. In good weather, students would walk to Forest Home Cemetery to view the historic gravesites. Now, thanks to a newly-created website, ForestHomeCemeteryOverview.com, they don’t have to walk — or wait for warm weather. Alexis Ellers and Mark Rogovin created this website.
The website is divided into sections — People of Interest, Ethnic Groups, Disaster Victims, and Labor Activists — and includes an updated map, history of the cemetery and a guide to different styles of gravestones and monuments. It also contains stunning photographs, taken by Ellers, and is user-friendly. Everyone from seniors to young students can navigate it easily.
Rogovin, a longtime Forest Park resident, has been fascinated by the cemetery since the first time he saw it. He has a particular interest in the Haymarket Martyrs Monument and has assisted in efforts to restore it. When he’s not at the cemetery, Rogovin curates his father’s collection of photographs. He receives requests for the late Milton Rogovin’s celebrated photographs from all over the world.
Ellers is a freelance photographer, who teaches photography to middle-school and high-school students in Chicago. She has been working with Rogovin on his father’s collection since 2008. In 2013, they started working on the website.
“It’s very comprehensive,” Rogovin said. “It covers all aspects of the cemetery, Radical Row, Druids, Gypsies [Roma]. There’s also a military section, Native Americans and a children’s section.” There has been some theft at the cemetery over the years and among other projects, Rogovin is working on replacing the bronze plaque that once marked the section where members of Cigar Makers International are buried.
“There are different kinds of gravestones,” Rogovin continued, “including white bronze markers that were ordered from Sears at the beginning of the 20th century.”
The website even explains the symbolism of gravestones. Ellers noted that the cemetery is non-denominational and one of the few to allow symbols on gravestones, such as the Mason emblem.
“We’re also inviting members of the public to send their own articles and images of the cemetery to the site,” Rogovin said. The website was created with the cooperation of the cemetery. Visitors can download the updated map they created, or pick up the map at the cemetery office.
“The website is mobile ready for smart phones,” Ellers said. Cemetery visitors can access it to guide them to the gravestones.
In the course of creating the website, the pair learned a great deal about Forest Home’s history. There used to be a gravel quarry behind the home of the cemetery founder, Ferdinand Haase. A railroad ran down Desplaines Avenue, bringing in the monuments and coffins and leaving with loads of gravel. The cemetery had an impressive entrance and decorative lakes.
“Oh yes, before it was a cemetery, it was a very popular picnic grounds,” Rogovin said. “There was even a jail cell in the middle of the cemetery that had been used to detain rowdy visitors.”
Ellers extensively photographed the cemetery, while Rogovin supplied text for the website from the Forest Park Review and from two books for sale at the cemetery office, Nature’s Choicest Spot, produced by the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest and The Day Will Come, which was written by Rogovin.
“We would like to partner with Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) and District 91,” Rogovin said, “to educate students about Forest Park history.” He noted that PMSA is adjacent to the cemetery, and students could walk out the back door to explore it, using the mobile ready website.
“Schools can use Forest Home as a teaching tool,” he observed. “Students could develop biographies of prominent people who are buried there, including people who are part of Forest Park history.”
They could also learn about disasters like the Eastland, the Iroquois Theater fire and the smallpox epidemic, because many of the victims are buried there. Two victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre buried in Forest Home.
Diane Hansen Grah, executive director of the historical society, also sees the website and the cemetery as valuable guides to Forest Park history. Grah has approached D91 about including local history in the curriculum. There is definitely interest at the middle school. Students in the Challenge Program are studying Ken Knack’s book about Forest Park. This prompted two middle-school students to visit the historical society on a Saturday morning to research the Forest Park Amusement Park. Grah believes the “Des Plaines River Anthology” would be a valuable book for them to study.
“They could learn about forms of entertainment in Forest Park,” she said, “the racetrack, golf course and the Bloomer Girls.”
As of now, PMSA is considering using the new website and having students study the history that is in the school’s “backyard.” A spokesperson for the elementary schools said, “District 91 will evaluate incorporating local historical elements of Forest Park once the process for updating the social studies curriculum begins.”
Rogovin added that, in addition to the website he and Ellers created, the Illinois Labor History Society has a website that contains a teacher’s guide to his favorite topic: the Haymarket incident.