NELLISTON — The Village of Nelliston, Town of Palatine and area residents have successfully collaborated in cleaning up the previously overgrown and largely forgotten Nelliston Cemetery, inactive since the 1930s.
After being named Village Clerk, Eddie Watt learned about the existence of the Nelliston Cemetery, tucked away on a hillside in a tree-enclosed space off Stone Arabia Street.
“We do have a lot of residents who ask about it,” said Watt, who has since been named cemetery sexton. He didn’t actually lay eyes on the greenery-obscured, weed-filled grounds until Village Board Member Richard Clinton stopped by and returned with photos.
When Watt visited the cemetery last summer, he found the grounds to be so wildly overgrown that it was easy to trip over both toppled and still-standing grave markers.
At the very first visit, he said he found the state of the cemetery to be “pretty discouraging.”
Grassy areas had turned to weeds — “it was really bad,” said John Mack, superintendent of the Department of Public Works. “There were branches down everywhere.”
Though Watt said that he doesn’t believe it’s the Village of Nelliston’s responsibility to maintain the cemetery, he felt a sense of duty to the local individuals and families buried there.
“Though cemeteries are not as popular as they were before, this is here and it should be kept up,” he said.
The Nelliston Village Board notified the Town of Palatine Board of its intent to revitalize the cemetery. The town was on board with cleanup plans, spending several days last year mowing, then returning again to mow this summer.
Once the grounds were clipped, a group of volunteers — including Nelliston Mayor Debra Gros, Clinton, Watt and several residents — spent three hours raking and further clearing the property.
Watt, who has since returned to the cemetery to clear weeds with Mack, said that even after several cleaning events, it’s only now that the grounds are finally being revealed.
“Even when we did the raking,” he pointed out — even after accumulating a big pile of green refuse — “I didn’t feel a lot of satisfaction because there was so much left to do.”
After a recent afternoon spent weed eating, Watt said, “After today, I’m starting to feel that satisfaction.”
“It’s no longer an eyesore anymore,” said Gros. “We cleaned it up pretty nicely.”
In clearing the cemetery, a bridge has been gapped between the expansive facility’s past and future. Several interesting discoveries were made at the site. One was finding the graves of Nelliston’s Newman children — Gertie, 2; Louise, 9; and Rosina, 15 — who passed away in January of 1875 within two days of one another.
After seeing and reading the gravestones again, Watt said he felt satisfied: “I feel that people shouldn’t be forgotten.”
While Watt is uncertain how the Newman children died, the discovery of the stones will also facilitate further research into the village’s history. The research could reveal climate information from that time, including whether an event such as a fire or pandemic claimed the young former residents’ lives.
The next challenge is for Watt to develop a maintenance schedule for regular upkeep of the property, likely every other week.
Village leaders plan to engage the town in the cleanup efforts, potentially also using county and volunteer resources. The village can also apply for grants for future work and improvements and has the capacity to partner with qualifying non-profits.
There are plans, too, for the creation of a burial map within the next year or year-and-a-half, Watt said. Though the cemetery sexton said he would like to use ground-penetrating GPS radar in mapping plots, that method is expensive and complex. As such, he’s looking into training, also seeking an experienced individual to potentially donate time in reading the GPS system.
If that plan doesn’t pan out, Watt said the option exists to geotag stones in the creation of a custom map, which would be available online.
“I’ve been looking at a lot of options,” said Watt, regarding the cemetery’s continued evolution, which he said will hopefully also include gravestone cleaning.
Larkin Kirby, superintendent of the Canajoharie Falls Cemetery, visited the Nelliston Cemetery and provided a positive assessment in that many of the aged stones can likely be successfully cleaned. Though weather-worn, many remain strong enough to either be pressure-washed or treated with a chemical to remove bio-agents.
An additional future goal will be the installation of topsoil in various portions of the cemetery in order to level the ground for easier mowing.
Watt said he hopes to schedule another volunteer day for August or September.
“I hope people will be willing to put similar energy” into the project as the volunteers who’ve recently worked so hard to restore it, he said.
The simple goal, after all, said Gros: “We just want to beautify it for the people who are buried there.”