KEEPERS OF THE DEAD: Couple documents thousands of area graves

Rantoul Press editor

One by one they are lined up in a cemetery in rural Thomasboro.

Five little children whose lives were cut short, each within a few months of one another, are buried there.

It was a common story of area residents in the 19th Century — families often decimated by death either due to sickness or other tragedy. Their stories are there waiting to be told in the cemeteries of East Central Illinois.

And Russell and Nancy Kasper of Rantoul are there to translate them, so to speak.

The Kaspers are fascinated by the tales of those who have gone before. And they help tell them by cataloguing the graves of numerous area cemeteries.

No, they’re not fascinated by death. They’re fascinated by history and the lives of the people whose graves they document. The work is also valuable to people who are doing genealogical work.  

Russell, a researcher for the Rantoul Historical Society, authored an article that appeared in the Feb. 13 Rantoul Press that told of a Confederate Civil War veteran — James Hodam — who fought in numerous battles, including Gettysburg, and later settled in this area and became a prominent citizen. He is buried in Rantoul’s Maplewood Cemetery.

Hodam’s grave, like all the others at Maplewood and in scores of graveyards in these parts, has been catalogued and filed by the Kaspers, who do it on a volunteer basis.

“We kind of consider ourselves the keeper of the dead,” Russell Kasper said.

The children’s grave markers at Beckman Cemetery near Thomasboro were all written in German. The children died within a few months of one another.

They were the offspring of Brune and Hauke Schlueter.

Death by disease was common back then. At Maplewood Cemetery there is a section for child burials near the Kresin mausoleum. The children are not buried with their families.

In addition to both being members of the Rantoul Historical Society, the Kaspers are members of Find A Grave.

They field requests from family members seeking the whereabouts of their ancestors’ graves.

While some grave sites tell their own story, the search requests from family members often tell other tales.

Nancy Kasper told of a young woman whose baby died shortly after childbirth at Chanute Air Force Base Hospital in the late 1960s. Her husband, in the military, deserted her, and the young woman later moved to California. Forty years later she asked the Kaspers to help locate her baby’s grave.

The baby, Bobby Lee Corbin, was buried in the children’s section at Maplewood, where babies were often buried separately from their families, especially in the event of typhoid or other disease.

“We’d done the children’s section,” Nancy said. “All that was at the (gravesite) was the funeral home plaque, and it was buried. You could barely see it.”

The mother contacted the Kaspers, who offered to assist her in having a marker placed on the grave.

The Kaspers helped them locate the grave for the marker company. A marker was made and placed on the grave for which the mother was “very thankful.”

“Here’s a woman who, for over 40 years, had no clue where her child was buried,” Nancy said.

One year, on the child’s birthday, the Kaspers placed balloons at the child’s grave.

The Kaspers got into documenting the locations of graves through her brother, who was doing it in Texas.

“I love photography and history, and we started tracking our own family tree and helping other people out,” Russell said.

“And it exploded.”

To date he has documented the locations of 9,223 gravesites, and she has done more than 2,000.

Neither one of the Kaspers, both age 56, grew up in this area. Yet they probably know more about the history of the community than many people who were born here, by documenting gravesites and their involvement with the Historical Society. The couple came to Rantoul when stationed at Chanute; she grew up in Texas and he in Wisconsin.

“From the historical standpoint I’ve always felt a person can find more out (about) the community they live in from going to local cemeteries and researching the individuals that are buried,” Russell said.

“Many towns, the founding fathers are buried there, and the ornateness of the tombs and tombstones are literally art themselves. But they tell a story, (especially) in the children’s burial section where maybe there was a typhoid epidemic, maybe a winter storm where many families were wiped out.

“It’s kind of a passion that we have on history and the relevance it has on history.”

The cataloguing of a grave will often lead to some unsuspected additional information. After they found the Hodam grave, Mr. Hodam’s great-stepdaughter, who lived in the western U.S., discovered that it had been documented and sent the Kaspers a book from the journals Hodam had kept on his life. They were able to secure additional copies, and one of them is on the shelves at Rantoul Public Library.

The Kaspers’ work has also led to recognition of many military veterans who are buried at area cemeteries but whose graves weren’t marked as veterans.

Their research found that 50 percent of the graves of military veterans did not have the military marker. They gave that information to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, which added their grave locations to a list used to place flags on Memorial Day. It also makes for a lot more small American flags that are placed beside the graves by the VFW on Memorial Day and a group of families on Veterans Day.

“It’s good to see a sea of red, white and blue,” Russell said.

The Kaspers also were able to provide updated gravesite information to entities that don’t have the resources to do so such as Rantoul Township and American Lutheran Church.

“They were appreciative (of the information) because their records were incomplete,” Russell Kasper said of the township.  

In the previous township records, many people were listed in the wrong graves or mistakenly identified.

When the Kaspers document a cemetery, they list the names of those buried there, the location in the cemetery and take a photo of the grave marker, if there is one. That information is provided on Find A Grave.

“It’s a two-fold purpose,” Nancy Kasper said, “It satisfies our historical passions, but at the same time it’s giving complete lists for the community to use.”

It’s not like the Kaspers have a lot of free time to do the cataloguing work. She works three jobs — at nights stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, part-time at Chanute Air Museum and as a substitute teacher. He works 60 hours a week as the manager of Rantoul Rent A Center and volunteers on weekends at the air museum and the historical society.

Understandably, they do much of their cataloguing work in fair weather.

“Many times that’s our vacation,” Nancy said.

The Kaspers are really graveyard detectives. Often it’s easy to find where someone is buried. Other times it takes some real sleuthing and hard work. Records weren’t as accurate and spelling wasn’t as meticulous 100 years ago.

Many grave markers indicate a person’s nickname rather than the real name. That makes it difficult when a family member looking for an ancestor’s burial site supplies the real name.

In some cases, there are no markers. And in some extreme instances, the cemetery has vanished. Russell told of one graveyard in rural Ford County where a farmer took the headstones and put them in his barn, plowed up his family’s graveyard and grew crops on it.

Nancy said an Alabama cemetery where some of her ancestors are buried was hit by Hurricane Katrina. A year after visiting the cemetery, they found that the headstones were no longer there. They were sunk into the ground.

Life has always been tenuous, and the causes of death have varied through the centuries.

From his research, Kasper has found that one of the main causes of death in the 1800s in Champaign County was from being run over by a train.

He produced one newspaper account of a man who was waiting for the train to take him from Thomasboro, where he worked, to Rantoul. While he waited, he visitied with Thomasboro residents.

He was later found lying in the ditch. He had been struck by the train and is buried at Maplewood Cemetery. A great lament went up among area residents for the victim was a prominent and well-liked man.

One woman had a kerosene lantern blow up in her face, and she was burned beyond recognition. She survived for four agonizing days before dying.

The Kaspers hope to one day cosponsor with the Rantoul Theatre Group a cemetery walk in which RTG actors would portray prominent residents of Rantoul past to provide a history of the community and its residents.

Jessica Holmes of RTG said she has spoken with the Kaspers about the cemetery walk.

“I’m sure (RTG actors) would be interested. There are a few of them who I think (would like to portray the roles),” Holmes said.

The Kaspers said their work documenting the gravesites of so many people helps them to focus on the present as well as the past and to realize that life is temporary.

“You know you’re mortal,” Kasper said.

It also saddens them that more people don’t pass along the history of their lives to their descendants. In many cases that falls to people like the Kaspers.


Rantoul Press editor

The location of the burial places of scores, if not hundreds, of people are unknown in Rantoul.

Gravesite researchers Russell and Nancy Kasper of Rantoul said the community has three lost cemeteries.

While they know the approximate locations of the cemeteries, their exact spots are unknown.

Two of the graveyards are pioneer cemeteries, both on the grounds of the former Chanute Air Force Base.

One pioneer cemetery is located between Urbana Avenue and Veterans Parkway on base.

“There used to be a military gate there,” Russell Kasper said. “None of the markers are known any more.

“According to different funeral directors and the village, no one as far as we know had to be reinterred at another location (as a result of the base being expanded to encompass that area.)”

The base, which opened in the early 20th Century, expanded three times. The cemetery was not part of the original base.

It held a quartermaster storage facility for the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II and then became a trailer park, which was torn down about a decade ago. The site is now an open field.

The second pioneer cemetery on the former base was located between the east runway and the last hole at Willow Pond Golf Course “that butts right up to Perimeter Road right where the runway is,” Nancy Kasper said.

The Kaspers said it is not known how many people were buried at the location, which was part of the third base expansion.  

“We do know there were five families at least buried there,” Russell said. “These were pioneers who moved there prior to the incorporation of Rantoul in 1854.”

It is believed they were buried between 1800 and 1840.

The third lost cemetery was known as Mink Grove Cemetery, where West Grove Avenue and Neipswah Avenue intersect.

The site is where an Indian tribe used to camp on stopovers during hunting season.

“In 1848 Archa Campbell came through East Central Illinois, and he’s the founding father of Rantoul, the first official white person (with his wife, Eliza) to settle in this area” Russell said.

And he settled at Mink Grove.

According to Campbell’s records there are several Indian graves and several pioneer graves located near where he dug a well. But like the other graveyards, they are not documented.

When plans were ongoing to develop Indian Hills subdivision, documentation had to be made that it would not desecrate any Indian burial grounds, Kasper said.

One person they know who is not buried there is Campbell. He’s not even buried in Illinois, rather in New York. Kasper said after Campbell settled in Rantoul, he moved to Urbana, where he became a prominent judge on the petit circuit. He was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and later became Urbana’s first mayor in 1855.

He later co-founded and was the first president of the Urbana Railroad Co. — the first mass transit system in Urbana, and then became an official in the Illinois Central Railroad.


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