March 01, 2024
Downers Grove

App guides visitors to historic Main Street Cemetery in Downers Grove

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DOWNERS GROVE – The Downers Grove Historical Society just launched an app to help visitors of the Main Street Cemetery learn more about the village's most notable figures.

In time for Founders Day, which takes place May 4, the downloadable app features audio biographies of Samuel Curtiss, who among many things advocated against slavery and helped with the Underground Railroad; Captain Walter Blanchard, who settled in Downers in the mid 1800s and served as a DuPage County judge; and Nancy Olivia Adams Foster, a relative of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams.

The cemetery is home to at least 100 of Downers Grove’s early residents, said Marty Acks, a board member of the historical society and genealogy enthusiast. Acks, along with many volunteers, developed the app to display a map of the cemetery, and users can tap on the marked grave stones to read or listen to a short bio.

“There’s some stories about people contributing to the site, and there’s people whose lives, unfortunately, ended too short,” Acks said about those who lived in Downers Grove during the 1800s. Back then, he explained, it was common to see children die at a young age, especially during birth, which consequently affected the livelihood of mothers.

The times were just different then, and this layered, complex history is revealed through the Main Street Cemetery. Acks added that one of the key residents buried at the cemetery is Israel Blackburn Jr., an African-American slave from Kentucky who was later freed and moved to Downers Grove. According to the app, Curtiss offered him a piece of land for farming.

The Main Street Cemetery, which is owned by the village, was recently named a historical landmark.

Located in the heart of downtown, the burial site serves as a host for tradition, a gatekeeper to the past before the takeover of modern medicine and technology.

Lois Sterba, a former history teacher and member of the society, played an instrumental role in researching and crafting the biographies of those who lay six feet under.

“I just like people not to forget it,” said Sterba of Downers Grove’s history, which dates to its formation in 1832.

She said the society is known for its living cemetery event in which young actors and actresses perform as historical figures, listing their contributions in Downers Grove.

With the app, visitors no longer have to wait for that annual event, and they can easily discover the mystery behind each gravestone.

“Many people walk through the cemetery all the time, and they just kind of glance around, but I think now that all this information is just at their fingertips, they will certainly be more interested in those people who are buried there and the history that goes along with them,” she said.

The Main Street Cemetery app is just one of the society’s efforts to not only bring the community together, but preserve Downers Grove’s 187-year-old history. Members such as Acks and Sterba continue to work together to make historical resources, facts and exhibits available to residents.

“It’s just so long ago that if we don’t have something written down or available that eventually we’ll lose that,” Sterba said. “I would hate to see that happen because there’s still a lot of people who are interested in the old, old history.”

For information on the Main Street Cemetery, visit