(Columnist’s note: I haven’t run this piece for a few years, but was recently asked to do so once again. So, in celebration of Halloween, here it is:)
Brilliantly colored leaves drift to the ground in the early twilight, and a light smoky haze rises against the full Hunter’s Moon.
Another deep autumn has arrived, and with it the annual observance of All Hallows Eve featuring visits by ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.
In recent years, local historical societies up and down the Fox River Valley have found an interesting, historically-oriented way to both participate in some Halloween fun and at the same time stress a little local history. Cemetery walks, with volunteers dressed as historic characters interred in the featured graveyards, have become popular diversions.
When we were kids, we looked forward to trick or treating on Halloween, but few if any of us were brave enough to wander around a cemetery on Halloween night. The Oswego Township Cemetery on South Main Street in Oswego, especially, seemed to be seeped in mystery. We’d heard the tales of John “Three-Fingered Jack” Hamilton, one of the Dillinger gang, who was buried in the cemetery, and none of us were the least bit interested in meeting up with his ghost. And there were the old houses that we were convinced were haunted, too.
But all things considered, real ghost stories were pretty few and far between in those years. Kendall County, it seems, is not exactly a paranormal hotbed.
Not that there aren’t any local ghost stories, of course. In my family, for instance, there’s a strong Pennsylvania Dutch strain. Those Pennsylvania German farmers didn’t carefully paint colorful hex signs on their barns to keep evil spirits away for nothing. Sometimes, they claim, those things that go bump in the night are real.
My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Lantz, were Pennsylvania Dutch born and bred. John Peter’s family came west by covered wagon in 1850 and settled on the border between Wheatland and Naperville townships. In the early 1860s, Amelia’s family, the Minnicks, came west, too, settling not far away. The couple married in 1867, and settled in to farm on today’s Ill. Route 59 just south of modern 103rd Street. The old Pete Miller’s Steak and Seafood was located these days.
Being true to their Pennsylvania roots, both John Peter and Amelia apparently believed that ghosts were real. If they hadn’t, they certainly did after a series of incidents suggested there’s a fine line between the real and the unreal, between belief and disbelief.
One early evening in late summer, the couple was driving their horse and buggy back to their farm after a trip to Oswego to visit relatives, heading north on what is today Normantown Road. As they neared the Vermont Cemetery, their horse became skittish, and started tossing her head. After passing the cemetery, they said they saw a strange light that suddenly appeared to hover just under the horse’s body.
The horse became terrified and bolted down the road out of control. The wild ride down the road—with the strange light keeping pace—lasted until they reached the next farm, at which time the light disappeared. The horse immediately slowed to a sedate walk as if nothing had happened. Both John Peter and Amelia were shaken, although unhurt, by the strange experience. Although they took special care when traveling that stretch of road, they told their friends and neighbors, no further incidents happened.
At least not right away. Several weeks later, the couple had their second experience with strange goings-on at the Vermont Cemetery.
Again, the couple was on their way home from Oswego, and had turned onto Normantown Road, reaching the cemetery shortly after the sun set. It must have set their hearts beating faster when their horse began acting skittish again, and I imagine my great-grandfather gripped the reins a little tighter, just in case. As they neared the cemetery, they noticed a man walking along the road ahead of them, also northbound and much closer to the cemetery than they. John Peter said later that he thought the man looked familiar from the back. As they overtook the man, John Peter called out to him, and asked whether he wanted a ride. That’s when the couple got a good look at his face. To their shock, they recognized him as a neighbor who had been buried in the Vermont Cemetery a few years before. The man made no response, but kept walking as if he hadn’t heard the offer of the ride. As the strange procession reached the gates of the cemetery, the man vanished into thin air.
Badly shaken, John Peter whipped up the already-skittish horse, and left the area as quickly as possible.
According to my grandmother, who related the story some 50 years after it happened, the same kind of incident happened several times in later weeks and years, almost always with a different deceased neighbor. When they’d reach the cemetery gates, the shade of which ever neighbor was accompanying them vanished.
“That’s what they said,” my grandmother recalled, adding, “But I don’t believe it! Why, whoever heard of such a thing?”
Today, the Vermont Cemetery is no longer quite so isolated. Named after a group of Granite State pioneers who settled nearby, the cemetery is now being slowly surrounded by housing developments. The last burial there was more than a half-century ago, and it is best known today for the rare prairie plants that grow there in profusion. But just maybe, on hazy fall evenings about dusk, the shade of a pioneer farmer sometimes still trudges along the narrow one-time country road towards the Vermont Cemetery seeking his final rest.
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