The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

June 23, 2013

Travelers intrigued by pioneer cemetery


In the weeks following the dedication of the renovated pioneer cemetery at the Salt Kettle Rest Area west of Danville, I spent several hours on a number of days visiting with the people who visited the historic site. Edward M. Wilson, who once owned the lad where the rest area and cemetery are located, was laid to rest in the cemetery in September 1840.

The visitors came from a number of states and one group was from Japan. Their interest varied from Abraham Lincoln to the type of wild flowers and plants that grew along the trail leading to the cemetery. One trucker from Iowa noted he came because he was Irish, and felt a kinship to Edward M. Wilson, who came to America from Ireland at age 17.

A woman from Pennsylvania was accompanied by her two teenage children and a curious poodle. She admitted they walked to the cemetery “just to get a little exercise,” but noted she was glad they did when she saw the woodland burial plot. “It kind of captures the spirit of America,” she said, after reading the information sign at the site.

Her son and daughter were continuously occupied with their cell phones, but did take time to look at the grave markers. The poodle exhibited some interest in a mole mound on the trail, but did not extend any energy excavating. “He’s getting old,” she told me as she pulled him away from the mound and they made their way back to the rest area.

The Japanese tourists were visiting Lincoln sites and were on their way to Springfield, one of the men told me. He was accompanied by another man and two women. He said they had decided to walk to the cemetery after viewing the exhibit at the rest area. They took several pictures and the man who did the talking wrote down information from the sign. Then they were off, on their way to the next site.

One morning when I walked back to the cemetery, a man was sitting on a log beside the trail. “Pull up a seat,” he said as I walked up. He was a trucker from Nebraska and noted he always walked a little during the day. He was interested in history and said he had visited nearly every site he could find near the roads he traveled. On vacation, he said, he sometimes took his wife to visit the more exceptional places he found. He was curious as to what kind of road would have existed in Wilson’s time and also asked where his homestead would have been. Any road near the cemetery would have been a dirt trail and the homestead would have been south of present I-74.

The staff at the rest area informed me numerous people are walking back to the cemetery. During the time I was there, I met dozens of people who visited the site. Many of them were surprised to learn Abraham Lincoln had close ties to Vermilion County, a place where he attended court for nearly 20 years. A man from Tennessee told me Abe was not as popular there as he was in the North.

People were also interested in details of the life of Edward M. Wilson — the Irish immigrant who came to America in 1802, fought the British in the Battle of North Point, came to Vermilion County in 1832, and had children represented in court by Abraham Lincoln.

The lady from Pennsylvania was right. The pristine spot does kind of capture “the spirit of America.”

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.