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The haunting of Vermont Cemetery: A ghostly tale for a fall evening

It’s nearly time for All Hallows Eve again, when ghosties and goblins and things that go bump in the night come to your door for a ‘trick or treat.’ What with the ongoing Covid epidemic, I would imagine that the number of trick or treaters will be diminished again this year. But maybe not.

Trick or treating was fun when I was a youngster—we had all the good houses staked out that we made sure to visit. But the one place we did not go near that night was the Oswego Township Cemetery. We had heard the tales of “Three Fingered Jack” Hamilton, one of John Dillinger’s gang, who was buried there after meeting a violent death, and we didn’t want to chance meeting up with the old guy.

Built in 1869 by Oswego gristmill owner and farmer George Parker just north of Oswego, this elaborate Italianate home had fallen into disrepair by the late 1950s, making it a perfect candidate for a haunted house. (Little White School Museum collection)

Despite our fears, real, honest to goodness local ghost stories are pretty hard to come by. When I was growing up, there was indeed an old haunted house over on Ill. Route 31. Built by the Parker family of mill-owning fame, the rambling old Italianate mansion had seen its share of scandal. Modified in the 1920s with a drive-in basement, John Schickler and son operated an illegal moonshine still there. Later the son turned his hand to the dairy business, using the basement to house his milk bottling operation. But by the late 1950s, it had fallen into disrepair, fully meeting the requirements of a haunted house, although without the requisite ghosts in residence.

In fact, I never really heard any good local ghost stories. I suspect the Methodist and Congregationalist settlers who predominated among the area’s earliest pioneers simply didn’t have time for such nonsense.

After I got into the newspaper business, ever on the lookout for a good seasonal story, I talked to a number of people, both young and old, to see if there were any good ghost stories about our area that I might have missed—we were always looking for a good Halloween feature story. As noted, apparently local people, especially the descendants of those early settlers are a hard-headed lot, and are not given to admitting the existence of ghosts, spirits, or poltergeists.

Except for one story, that is. Several years ago, after much prodding and despite her obvious embarrassment, I did manage to get my grandmother to relate a couple of stories her parents told her, one of which turned out to be a pretty fair ghost story.

John Peter and Amelia Lantz on their wedding day, Feb. 16, 1869.

My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Lantz, were both Pennsylvania Dutch, and were a bit more superstitious than most area residents who didn’t come from that tradition. An influx of Pennsylvania Germans arrived here on the northern Illinois prairies in the 1850s, drawn by stories of rich farmland that didn’t have to be cleared of dense forests before it could be cultivated. Arriving from Lancaster, Schuylkill, and other Pennsylvania counties heavily populated by the descendants of the German settlers William Penn had persuaded to immigrate—and mostly still speaking German at home even after having lived in Pennsylvania for 100 or more years—the new arrivals fit right in with the latest German immigrants who’d settled on the Oswego Prairie between Oswego and Naperville in the late 1840s.

Both groups of ethnic Germans brought their traditions with them, including the Pennsylvania Dutch ambivalence about superstition. My great- grandparents, for instance, had both been raised with the idea that ghosts and spirits were real things.

And so we come to the story that involves the old Vermont Cemetery in Wheatland Township.

The Vermont Settlement was created when the Jonathan Davis and Levi Blanchard families arrived from Vermont out on the Wheatland prairie in 1843. They were joined the next year by their fellow Green Mountain native, Layton Rice and his five sons along with Rudolph Houghton and family. The area continued to draw settlers, some from Vermont, others immigrating from Germany and traveling west from Pennsylvania. The settlers soon founded they needed both a burying ground as well as a school. The one-acre cemetery was laid out on the east side of what eventually became Normantown Road about a half mile south of Wolf’s Crossing Road.

My great-grandparents frequently traveled into Oswego to visit my great-great grandparents from their farm along what’s now Ill. Route 59. The quickest route for them was to take what’s today Route 59 north from their farm to modern 103rd Street, and drive on that all the way to Normantown Road (on part of 103rd that no longer exists). Then they’ turn north on Normantown Road to Wolf’s Crossing and into Oswego.

My grandmother in 1979, about the time she told me the Vermont Cemetery ghost story.

One dark night back just before the turn of the 20th Century, as my great-grandparents were returning to their farm from Oswego on that route, their horses began to act strangely. Just after passing the old Vermont Cemetery, they noticed a strange light that appeared to hover just under their horse.

The horse became terrified and bolted out of control. The couple had a wild ride until they reached the Leppert farm, where the light disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. The horse immediately became calm and slowed to a sedate walk as if nothing had happened. John Peter and Amelia, however, were quite shaken by the experience.

Some weeks later, another incident happened at the Vermont Cemetery that convinced my great-grandparents that the cemetery was indeed haunted.

This time, again, the Lantzes were on their way home from Oswego, when their horse began to act up. They noticed that they were again nearing the Vermont Cemetery, and at the same time saw, from the back, a man walking along the road headed towards the cemetery. John Peter thought the man looked very familiar, and when they caught up with him was astonished to recognize him as a neighbor who had been buried in the cemetery some time before.

As the couple pulled up to the walking man, John Peter said he asked him if he wanted a ride. The man made no response, and, acting as if he didn’t know the buggy was beside him, kept walking steadily towards the cemetery. When the couple in the buggy and the walking man reached the gates of the cemetery the man seemed to vanish into thin air. My great-grandparents hurried away as quickly as their horse and buggy could carry them.

According to my grandmother, a replay of this incident happened several times, always with a different deceased neighbor. It always happened in the same manner, with the person found walking towards the cemetery, and then disappearing when he reached the gate.

“That’s what they said,” my grandmother recalled, adding, “But I don’t believe it! Why, whoever heard of such a thing?”

The Vermont Cemetery Preserve today, with no ghosts evident. (Forest Preserve District of Will County photo)

Today, cemeteries aren’t so much sources for scary stories as they are considered repositories of historical information and rare native plants. Thanks to Northern Illinois University’s Dr. Robert Betz, volunteers began trying to preserve the Vermont Cemetery in 1961. It was fenced off in 1970 to preserve the rich collection of rare native prairie plants. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory identified 70 native species of plants at Vermont Cemetery. It was dedicated as an Illinois State Nature Preserve in 1999. The Forest Preserve District of Will County subsequently acquired the old cemetery along with a little over 24 acres to create a prairie buffer around it, creating today’s Vermont Cemetery Preserve, a living museum of northern Illinois’ prairie past.

l haven’t heard of anyone seeing ghosts out there lately, though, but then again, maybe no one has looked. Perhaps on a misty fall night, ghosts of pioneer farmers still trudge along that lonely stretch of country road on their way back to their resting places at the Vermont Cemetery.


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