BY MARY WICOFF
Residents in this area usually have no reason to stop at the Salt Kettle Rest Area off Interstate 74. As a result, they might not know that a bit of local history lies nearby — a small pioneer cemetery from the 1800s.
People will get a chance to take a close look at the renovated cemetery during a dedication cemetery at 2 p.m. Sunday.
A plaque will be unveiled at the rest area, which is between Danville and Oakwood. Speakers include Bill Black, city alderman and former state representative, and Sue Richter, director of the Vermilion County Museum. There will be a tour of the cemetery and light refreshments available.
A trail has been established from the rest area to the cemetery, a new granite marker has been erected to Edward M. Wilson, who came from Ireland, and his wife, Caroline, and some of the older stones have been reset. Volunteers from the museum society will maintain the trail and the cemetery in the future.
“I think it’s really unique,” Richter said of the cemetery. “It’s not only the story of an Irish immigrant, but it gives a whole overview of life on the prairie.”
The cemetery is located on Kickapoo State Park land, overlooking the Middlefork River valley. People can access it only from the rest area.
John Hott, superintendent at Kickapoo, said, “This is a real unique opportunity that we can partner with the museum and use their expertise to restore the historical cemetery. I think it’s going to be a nice cemetery.”
Hott said he appreciated all of the work done by people, especially Larry Lovett, who restored the stones. Describing Lovett as a master engraver, he said, “I’m sure the job was done with the greatest perfection. He is a treasure trove of knowledge.”
Richter said the Vermilion County Museum Society was made aware of a forgotten pioneer cemetery near the rest area in December 2009. To carry out the project of renovating the cemetery, the society obtained permits from the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
It took almost all of 2010 and 2011 to get the permits, she said.
Richter described the cemetery as a wonderful tie to United States, Illinois and Vermilion County history, noting the pristine family burial plot is representative of numerous tiny cemeteries that were created as the nation’s frontier expanded west.
A sign at the rest area indicates: “Edward M. Wilson and other pioneers rest in a pristine wooded cemetery a few hundred yards from the rest area. Wilson purchased the land where the rest area and cemetery are located from the federal government for $1.25 per acre. His history was carved in stone on his grave marker.”
The history of the area was compiled by the Archives Department of the Danville Public Library, Illiana Genealogical Society and the National Archives:
Wilson came to the United States from Ireland in 1802 when he was 17. In 1814, during the War of 1812, he fought the British in the Battle of North Point.
In 1832 Wilson came to Vermilion County and began purchasing land from the government at the federal land office in Danville. He eventually acquired more than 1,000 acres and built a homestead on his land, along with his sons, James, Joseph, John and William.
The pioneer salts works were producing salt in the river valley not far from his home. One of the original kettles used in the process is on exhibit at the rest area.
While Wilson was acquiring his land from the government, young state Rep. Abraham Lincoln was involved in legislation to decide what to do with the saline land in Vermilion County. The old state road Lincoln traveled to Vermilion County to attend court for nearly two decades is located a quarter mile south of the pioneer cemetery. Lincoln represented Wilson’s children in a Vermilion County court case following Wilson’s death.
In 1835, Wilson married Caroline Searl; he was 50 years old and she was 24. Prior to their marriage, he and Searl signed a prenuptial agreement. Wilson was a wealthy individual when this marriage took place, and though he did not leave Caroline a full share of his estate, he did provide for her in the agreement. Two children were born to this union.
When Wilson died in 1840 at age 55, he left a sizeable estate, and Enoch Kingsbury, a pioneer Presbyterian minister from Danville, was appointed guardian of his five minor children.
Wilson was buried at the pioneer cemetery, which also is known as Searl Cemetery.
Information on Wilson’s deteriorated stone sparked the restoration of the cemetery, and research of his life.
After Larry Lovett cleaned the stones, Don and Sue Richter, Wendy Wilder, Frank Smith, Darrell Light and Dawn Cobb and Hal Hansen from the state preservation agency reset the stones in the cemetery. Adams Memorials designed and set the commemorative stone. Signage for the rest area visitor’s center and the cemetery were provided by Photo Steel, and the directional signs by the City of Danville.
The mulch for the path in the woods to the cemetery was provided by IDOT from trees that had to be removed at the rest area. Lovett’s father, Ed, cleared and cleaned the path from the edge of the woods to the cemetery.
A dedication ceremony for the renovated pioneer cemetery at the Salt Kettle Rest Area near Oakwood will start at 2 p.m. Sunday.
For information, go to http://www.vermilioncountymuseum.org.