One historical mystery down, a bunch still to go…

One of the things we seem to get too little time to do these days down at the museum is to do actual history. Every day we spend down there seems more clogged with paperwork, policy discussions, and keeping databases up to date, not to mention trying to shoehorn in 20 artifacts where only 18 ought to fit—our storage space problems are almost legendary.

But every once in awhile, a researcher strolls through the door with a fascinating problem, or something else turns up that forces us to (not at all reluctantly) to turn away from the mundane and get back into history. Recently, for instance, we’ve had descendants of two black families who lived in Oswego for many years in the late 1800s and early 1900s come in looking for info on their families. And we were able to supply enough to make them happy. One family lived on South Main Street, where the father, a black Civil War veteran, was the long-time custodian at the Oswego grade and high school, where his children became the first male and female African-Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County. The patriarch of the other family drove a horse and buggy 500 miles from Nashville, Tenn. to Oswego in 1899 where he engaged in the concrete contracting business, married into a prominent black farming family, and raised his family until his death in 1934.

2015 3-15 Mary Wolf stoneThat was probably enough really neat local history to have lasted us the entire year, but then a week or so ago, my buddy and Assistant Museum Director Bob Stekl, who has to continually rearrange our storage shelves to make room for new donations due to the museum’s lack of storage space, was working in the textile storage area when he spied the fragment of a tombstone we store upright at the end of one textile shelving unit. Newly intrigued, he decided to try to figure out exactly who this “Mary” was.

In the early 2000s when working along the Fox River Trail, a walking and cycling path paralleling Ill. Route 25 from Montgomery south to its Oswego terminus, an Oswegoland Park District crew recovered the tombstone fragment from the bank of the Fox River.

Engraving on the fragment indicated the stone was for a woman named Mary who died in September in the 1860s, and who was 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old. The part of the stone with her husband’s name and her last name had broken off.

The park district crew wondered whether the Little White School Museum wanted the stone, and we immediately accepted it, but then largely forgot about it. After all, with no last name and no husband’s name, it would have been really difficult to determine which “Mary” who died in the 1860s it belonged to.

But Bob was newly interested, and so got on the computer and headed over to Ancestry.com, where he searched without any luck. Next stop was FamilySearch.org, the Latter Day Saints’ website, but didn’t have any luck there either. There just wasn’t enough information to do an effective search at either site.

So he decided to take another run at the problem from a different direction. He decided to assume Mary was a Kendall County resident as a starting point, therefore making his next stop Elmer Dickson’s excellent Kendall County genealogy web page. Dickson’s comprehensive web page offers, among many other resources, a database of Kendall County burials. Bob found that the burial listings (there are more than 60,000 of them) can be sorted by any of the columns on the page, including death date. So he clicked on the top of the death date year column and scrolled down looking for deaths during a September in the 1860s where the person was 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old.

The original location of the Oswego Prairie Church was about a quarter mile east of Roth Road in Oswego Township. Due to access and drainage issues, the church was moved.

This 1859 Oswego Township map shows thee original location of the Oswego Prairie Church was about a quarter mile east of Roth Road in Oswego Township. Due to access and drainage issues, the church and cemetery were both moved in 1861.

And there, down near the very end of the list of 1861 burials, popped up Mary Barbara Wolf, wife of Leonard Wolf, who died in September 1861 at the age of 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old.

John Leonard Wolf’s son, John Ulrich Wolf, was the earliest Wolf settler out at what is today called Wolf’s Crossing where Wolf’s Crossing Road crosses U.S. Route 30. The Wolfs arrived in 1850, and in 1860 John U. brought his parents, John Leonard and Mary Barbara (Heulf) Wolf to Illinois from their home in the hamlet of Schussbach, Bavaria.

In his history of the Oswego Prairie Church’s Evergreen Cemetery, historian John Hafenrichter referred to Mary Barbara as the matriarch of the Wolf family (of the couple’s nine children, all but three emigrated to Illinois) in Kendall County. Unfortunately, she lived less than a year after arriving.

The congregation of what eventually became the Oswego Prairie Church built their first church and cemetery in 1850 on a low-lying site about a half-mile due east of Roth Road and the current Evergreen Cemetery. Due to drainage and access problems, both cemetery and church were relocated in 1861 to the current Evergreen site along Roth Road. Most of the graves in the old cemetery were removed to the communal section of the new cemetery. It was there that Mary Barbara Wolf was interred when she died in September 1861, where her tombstone was apparently erected. When her husband, John Leonard Wolf, died in 1865, he was buried next to her, and a new marker, containing the names of both John and Mary was erected, replacing Mary’s original stone.

In 1861, the church and the cemetery were both moved west to adjoin Roth Road. In 1870, the church purchased a site at Roth and Wolf's Crossing roads, where they built a newer, larger church.

In 1861, the church and the cemetery were both moved west to adjoin Roth Road. In 1870, the church purchased a site at Roth and Wolf’s Crossing roads, where they built a newer, larger church, as this 1871 map of Oswego Township illustrates.

In 1871, the new cemetery was enlarged, plus it was surveyed and lots were laid off and sold to church members. John Wolf, son of John Leonard and Mary Barbara, purchased a block of burial plots, and then had his parents moved from the communal section to his new family block, along with the couple’s marker. In his 1999 history of Evergreen Cemetery, John Hafenrichter wondered whether Mary Barbara had had a marker at her original burial location.

“What marker, if any, was erected in 1861 marking Mary Barbara’s grave is not known,” he wrote. “After John Leonard’s death, four years later, his son installed a large rectangular stone, marking jointly what must have been the burial area of his parents, John Leonard and Mary Barbara Wolf.” That large stone with the names of both his parents’ names inscribed, was then moved in 1871 to the Wolfs’ final resting place in the new family plot.

My indefatigable friend, John Lee Hafenrichter (1928-2011), historian and researcher extraordinaire.

My indefatigable friend, John Lee Hafenrichter (1928-2011), historian and researcher extraordinaire.

We now believe the broken stone found along the Fox River by those park district workers was Mary Barbara’s original 1861 stone, which was probably discarded after the couple’s new marker was created following John Leonard’s death.

Although it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t tie the tombstone fragment to Mary Barbara (Huelf) Wolf while John Hafenrichter was living, we’re pretty sure he keeps a close eye on things having to do with the history of doings out on what they used to call the German Prairie—not to mention here at the museum where he spent quite a bit of time. So, John, this find’s for you.

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Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

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