Remembering DeKalb County’s history this Memorial Day

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For Jennifer Jeep Johnson, Memorial Day is more than parades and barbecues, it’s a day to remember and honor the memory of those who have died.

Johnson is the supervisor for DeKalb Township, which oversees Evergreen and Oakwood cemeteries in DeKalb. In October, the township teamed up with the Ellwood Explorers to teach children about cemetery traditions and picnic in a cemetery the way it was done during the Victorian era.

“Some people tend to think of cemeteries as places of mourning and sadness, but throughout history, they were places people used to go to picnic and contemplate things,” Johnson said. “Visiting a cemetery connects our modern lives with local history and the stories of our founding fathers and ancestors. … When we are in need of contemplation, there is something comforting about paying our respects to those who have gone before us, maybe even a calling on the collective wisdom drawn from the lives lived and lost and the stories each marker represents.”

This year, Memorial Day parades, gatherings and festivities have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. At South Grove Cemetery in Kirkland, a memorial service was held Sunday, featuring a flag-raising ceremony and singing of the national anthem. Attendees remained in their cars.

On Saturday, May 23, members of Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War E. F. Dutton Camp of Sycamore will decorate the graves of Civil War veterans at Elmwood Cemetery in Sycamore.

“Memorial Day is a day to honor those in service to the country, but this year, it’s difficult without events being held,” Camp Commander Lars Jacobson said. “Some were willing to give their lives, and some did. They were real-life people that suffered and endured to keep our country free. We owe our freedom to those who put their freedom and lives on the line, and some sacrificed everything to prevent others from taking that freedom from us.”

The first national observation of Memorial Day took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. The holiday originally was known as Decoration Day, because on that day the graves of soldiers killed during the Civil War were decorated with flowers, flags and wreaths. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971.

“We have to remember that the names on plaques and headstones in the cemetery were once living, breathing people,” local historian Steve Bigolin said. “DeKalb County is so rich in its history, not just barbed wire and hybrid corn. There are so many interesting life stories to tell, there’s so much history in the cemeteries.”

There are 41 active cemeteries and 10 inactive cemeteries in DeKalb County, with at least one cemetery in every township except Milan Township, which does not have one. Fourteen cemeteries have been despoiled or are no longer in existence. The oldest cemetery in DeKalb is Evergreen Cemetery, which began in 1855. William Sebree, the first permanent white settler in DeKalb County, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Squaw Grove Township in Hinckley. Sebree was born in Indiana in 1833 and died in 1919.

DeKalb County historian Sue Breese said “the history of the county can be told in its cemeteries.”

“To remember these people, monuments and plaques are scattered throughout the county to document historical events,” Breese said. “Visiting a cemetery brings back the memory of a person or gives you the feeling that you are connected to the person. A cemetery is a place to respect the past and its role in shaping your history.”

Cemeteries remain open to visitors during the stay-at-home order, but social distancing is recommended. For information about DeKalb County cemeteries, visit