Dead Men Talking ...
Pioneer Graves part of Memorial Day Tribute at Edgar Cemetery
Paris Beacon-News, May 28, 2010
By Jenny Barkley
The oldest section of Edgar Cemetery at the northeast edge of Paris will be part of the 2010 Memorial Day tribute.
In addition to the numerous American flags which are erected annually in Edgar Cemetery to pay tribute to Veterans and loved ones, this year marker flags will be placed on the unmarked graves of pioneers.
Just how this is accomplished requires a special combination of talent and circumstances.
Long before Edgar Cemetery was established in 1858, part of the grounds served as a pioneer burial site, perhaps as early as the 1700s, according to Jim Englum, president of the Cemetery Board.
“We don’t know the date of the first burial, but earliest cemetery records reveal a stone erected in 1815 to the memory of Henry Clark, with an even earlier presence of some unmarked graves,” Englum said.
Oral history reveals that along the east side of the ground which eventually became Edgar Cemetery, pioneers traveled The Chicago Trail. The local portion of this trail carried wagon trains from north and south through the areas now known as High Street and the Lower Terre Haute Road.
Pioneer travelers often stopped to camp northeast of the area later established as the town of Paris, because water was plentiful from the streams in low areas nearby. (Portions of these streams are now beneath the city’s lake system.)
Historians say that local pioneers wanting to travel would camp on high ground near the streams, waiting to join a wagon train. Transients who had the misfortune to die en route were buried on the big hill west of the trail, now part of Edgar Cemetery.
Burials no longer take place in this oldest area, known as Section X and located immediately next to High Street. All of the graves believed to be those of pioneers have been marked temporarily with colored flags for the upcoming holiday.
LOCATING THE LOST–
For those who can believe in the method of dowsing to find graves, the cemetery’s past is revealed for all to see during the Memorial Day weekend.
A dowser, by definition, is typically one who uses a rod [sometimes wires or branches] to search for underground water or minerals. The rod pulls strongly in a particular direction as it passes over a water source. Many wells in the rural area are located utilizing the skills of a dowser.
In addition, some dowsers also claim they can locate graves in a similar manner. They determine whether a male or female, adult or child, is interred, based on the directional swing of a one or more rods.
Fenton Cash of Paris is a dowser. And, ironically, he lives on ground where pioneers once established their encampments along The Chicago Trail. Recently he has focused on the unknown pioneers in Edgar Cemetery.
“He can do it,” said his wife Judy Cash. “I’ve seen him. When he held a wire above my head, it spun to the left, indicating a female, with such strength that I could not pull against it.” The same turn of a dowsing rod determines the sex of a person buried beneath the sod, dowsers claim.
Cash heard the pioneer legends after purchasing property near the cemetery. When he learned recently about the unmarked graves in Section X, Cash offered to help locate and provide additional information about the graves.
Curiosity was peaked, the Cemetery Board agreed, and the search began.
Beneath one of the largest and oldest trees on the hill (the area near the sidewalk bench along High Street), Cash initially discovered 10 bodies by using rods he fashioned from copper wire.
In the entire Section X, a total of 327 unmarked graves were detected by Cash and marked. The graves by Cash’s calculation represent 21 adult males, 39 male children, 63 adult females and 204 female children. Some spectators were on hand to observe the process, which took several days to complete.
Cash found the first 48 in one row, in one evening. His wife Judy marked the graves with orange paint until they could be flagged. For Memorial Day, a yellow flag designates female, orange indicates male, and white marks a child.
Cash noted that the Illinois Cemetery Association does not recognize dowsing as fact.
“Their method is to dig up a potential grave and see what’s beneath the ground,” Cash explained. “However, that disturbs the grave and its sanctity. I prefer dowsing. I believe it’s the responsibility of the living to care for the dead, and this is one way I can help.”
No one knows how dowsing works for graves, but some enthusiasts estimate that 90 percent of people can do so. One practical application of the process is to help genealogists identify locations of unmarked graves in lost cemeteries.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT–
Obviously, skeptics exist. But so do believers.
It’s the reader’s option to believe or not. But from either persuasion, it makes a good story.
Memorial Day is an appropriate time to remember those pioneers who came to their final resting place in a quiet hill on the prairie, while blazing a trail through the wilderness that became Illinois.