Jane Keill’s trip to Deer Creek Cemetery
Exactly one hundred years after James Dorward Raitt and his wife Elizabeth returned to Deer Creek, Illinois to set up a gravestone for two of their children who had died there as well as for Elizabeth’s mother, Bridget Motley, James’ great granddaughter, Jane Keill, also made an epic trip back to Deer Creek in an effort to locate the graves. This is the story of Jane’s trip and it nicely complements the journal that James Dorward Raitt penned of his own journey back in 1907.
The James Dorward Raitt, Sr.s in Deer Creek, Illinois, 1871-1883
(The search for the grave of Bridget Motley, Marion Violet Raitt and Henry Motley Raitt)
A little background:
My primary reference for the trip is a journal James Raitt wrote when they returned to Illinois in 1907 to place a headstone on the grave of Bridget (mother-in-law), Violet and Henry (infants). Their grave was left behind unmarked when James and family moved to Nebraska and resettled in the Rising City and David City area. His story is chock full of details! The primary purpose for the trip was to locate the gravestone, if I could.
I was also looking for the grave sites of several of Mike Thomas’ family, descended from the John Dorward Raitt, Sr. side of the family. Although I had less detail about Mike’s family, we do know they were located in the Chenoa and Cullom, IL, area. Since I would be driving within a 50 mile radius of these locales, it would be worth a stop and a look while there.
Other preliminary research had been done with the Pekin County Clerk for birth (Violet’s) and death certificates (Bridget’s), the Chenoa Historical Society, the Lexington Genealogical and Historical Society and, of course, the internet and Google maps, as well as input from Mary Lu, Mike Thomas and David Raitt. Thanks to everyone!
The drive down:
Having pre-packed the car the night before, I jump into Odyssey (my 2001 Toyota Corolla who loves to travel, too) and we take off for downstate Illinois on the never-ending search for the Raitt family history. Onto Interstate Tollway 294 and buzz down to I-55 which leads to the mid-section of our state. This is where John Dorward Raitt, Sr. and his wife, Cecelia first settled when they came to America. They were followed by James Dorward Raitt, Sr., and his wife, Elizabeth Abbot Raitt, their first child, John Dorward, Jr. and Elizabeth’s mother, Bridget Motley. They settled in the Deer Creek, IL, area and began farming.
From I-55, I turn onto Rte 74, and travel to Morton, IL, where I will stay at the Comfort Inn. On the way, I watch for the turnoff to Deer Creek, but don’t see it. Soon enough, I arrive at the hotel, check in, have a bite of lunch and ask for directions to Deer Creek. Well, the reason I didn’t see a turnoff from Rte 74, is because there isn’t one! Received directions via Rte 150 to get to Deer Creek, and take off to explore. The weather is gray, threatening, very windy, raw, cold and spitting rain. In other words, not pleasant!
The search begins:
I start with what shows on the maps as the “Deer Creek Cemetery” (also, sometimes called the Presbyterian Cemetery), supposedly on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Dee-Mack Roads, just west of the village of Deer Creek. Arriving at that juncture, there is a farm on the NW corner, and right next to the farm yard – is a cemetery! And, there are sheep in it – munching away! What to do? Is this the right place? There’s no sign. It’s about 2 acres on a rise of land, with another grassy acre just to the south (which turns out to be flood plain). And, it’s a very small, old cemetery and not kept up very well. Stones turned over and broken, but fenced in and obviously being used by the farmer’s sheep. OK, I don’t want to trespass, so I drive up into the farm yard and find the farmer in the barn with his Australian sheep dog who is happy for company – running back and forth.
The farmer’s name is Scott Mickna, and after discussing my mission, we go into the kitchen and he gives me the name of Art Kennedy (the sexton for the Mt. Zion Cemetery for Deer Creek and Rich Brehmer, the tax assessor and surveyor for the area and who does a lot of genealogical work with his family. I describe to Scott the journal that James Raitt wrote and I happen to mention the name of Chaffer – a name not only cited in the Raitt story, but I had also seen Chaffer Road on one of the signs as I drove in the area. Well, Serendipity! The Chaffer family still owns a lot of land in the township and Jim Chaffer is one of Scott’s good friends. They talk almost every day. Scott says he will mention my quest to Jim and maybe we’ll find out if the Chaffer’s have any old pictures or other memorabilia related to this period. (James Raitt mentions in his story that he dealt with E.G. Chaffer and Abraham Chaffer.) Scott tells me that out on Rte 150 is a big two-story, yellow house which was built by Abraham Chaffer. Scott gives me directions to Mt. Zion cemetery and another one out in the country. He says since he doesn’t own the land the cemetery stands on, it’s fine to go in and to just shoo the sheep out of the way. He thought the name of it is Deer Creek Cemetery and he has, in the past, had been hired to mow it 1-2 times. In the past, the local 4-H boys had done some mowing, too. Then, he began to let the sheep in and they keep the grass down. He didn’t know who is specifically in charge of the place.
The West Lawn Cemetery: Cullom, IL
After leaving some flowers on the graves at Payne, I stopped at McDonald’s for some lunch since it was now about 2:00 pm and I was pretty hungry. Then, I headed toward Cullom, IL, via Rte 116, about 25-30 miles east of Chenoa and the Payne Cemetery. Noticing the flat, open countryside as I drove along, I imagined that this must have been the view for our relatives when they first came and settled here. The West Lawn Cemetery and the St. John’s Cemetery are together at the west side of Cullom. The two sites are separated by a series of poles in the ground – one side Catholic, the other side not. Again, a very nice location, well-kept and most of the stones facing one way (West, what else!), but many of them also have the family name on the back of the stones, often along with the names of children or other family names. A nice arrangement. Drive around for a few minutes before I spot the row that has Taylor graves in it. Most of them are in the same row or section, and not too hard to locate. Took pictures, and laid flowers at the graves, and then decided to return to Morton and the hotel. I did not go on into Cullom as I did not want to hit rush hour on my way back.
Spent the evening after a little dinner, relaxing and reviewing my pictures and jotting down notes from the last two days. Also, a little prep for tomorrow to meet Rich at the cemetery. Awakened during the night by a boisterous group coming in about midnight, and not able to sleep again until 2:30 am!
The weather looks sunnier today, but the trees are still bending a lot in a strong wind. I decide to take my yellow fleece shirt along, since it looks like it will be chilly again. Down to breakfast at the hotel. Then, call Rich to see how his schedule looks. He won’t be available until 9:15 am, but will meet me at the Presbyterian Cemetery (as we now officially call it). When I go out to my car, I notice the left rear wheel is low on air, so I drive over to the near-by Wal-Mart and charm the guy into looking over the tire for nails, cuts, etc., and then putting in some air. (Since I’ve been driving around on back-country, gravel roads these last two days, I didn’t want a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere! The tire’s been fine since, so it was just a little low on air.)
The Presbyterian Cemetery and Surrounds: Deer Creek, IL
I drive over to the cemetery and am just opening the gate when Rich drives up in his pick-up truck. He joins me as the sheep are running off, bleating in alarm – Gee, I didn’t think we were that intimidating! – and, he shows me where the Raitt headstone is. It is, indeed, standing right there in the middle of the field, rather by itself, and quite obvious. With a skirt of solid-looking cement around it. I must have been blind Monday not to have seen it! It does not, however, look like it’s been standing there for 100 years! And, I’m very happy that GGrandpa Raitt put it in marble. It’s stood the test of time. So, picture-taking and then wiring up the gate again, and we jump in Rich’ truck because the wind is coldly brutal – even with my fleece shirt! (I didn’t leave the flowers that I had brought because they would have simply blown away in the wind – or the sheep would have snacked on them. I wonder if they like carnations? Hee Hee)
Rich shows me the papers that he had copied for me and there is a picture of the old Presbyterian Church which once stood on the acreage with the graves. It was later sold and moved into Deer Creek where it was used as a different kind of Church for many years. We also looked over the baptismal notes and some of the early records that show our family participating in the Church and the community. We also discussed what might happen to the cemetery in the future. Scott Mickna had said on Monday that he doesn’t own it, and Rich indicated the Church doesn’t exist any more. Rich said there is a law called “Adverse Possession” which says that if you have unclaimed land on your property for a period of time, you can eventually declare it your own. Since no one really owns the 2 acres of the cemetery now, Scott Mickna could at some future date say the land is now his, and his sheep have been using it. He could then go in and plow the graves under if he had a mind to. Or, after he left the land, another farmer could come along who would. (The “flood” acre next to the cemetery is owned by Scott so the cemetery is a 2 acre chunk out of the rest of his property.) Somewhere I had heard that if a cemetery hasn’t had a burial in 30 years, it no longer stands as protected land (???) And, since the Presbyterian Church has long been gone, it is no longer Church land. Something else to think about. It’s possible to stop at the cemetery one day, and find corn growing.
Then, Rich offered to drive me around the local area and show me the spots where he thought my family probably lived/worked. He told me that the original village of Deer Creek started right down on the corner of Scott’s farm, at the corner of 3rd & Dee-Mack Road. It wasn’t until later that the community moved more East and stands where the town is today. We drove through Deer Creek itself, and he showed me his own home and some of the older homes in the town. He also drove by the corner lot where the old Presbyterian Church used to stand. It was taken down many years ago, and the land is now occupied by two small houses, and except for his family records, there is no more evidence of the old Church. We then drove out Rte 150 and found the Abraham Chaffer house. It is indeed a lovely old home, yellow, two-story, and sitting on a high rise of ground. It is currently owned and has been restored by a Doctor from Peoria. After leaving there, Rich drove on down the roads pointing out a Chaffer farm here and a Chaffer farm there. He really knows the history of the county!
We then drove to Jim Chaffer’s farm to see if he might be home and have a few minutes to visit. He was, indeed, home, working in his barn. He came over and greeted Rich, and I was introduced. I told him I was the great-granddaughter of a man who used to rent from his family – E.G. Chaffer and Abraham. He said right away, that E. G. would have been Elijah Chaffer (who I think he said was a brother of Abraham’s). I asked him if he knew if the family had any old family records, and he thought there was only one old picture of Abraham somewhere. He wasn’t into genealogy at all, but some of his family are. (An aside here: I just reread GGrandma Raitt’s story of her life written for the David City newspapers, and am now kicking myself for not doing so before making the trip. She cites that Sarah Belle Chaffer (?) was the woman who helped her transition from a ship captain’s lady to a farm wife. And, later named one of her daughters, our Great-Aunt (Sarah) Belle in thanks for her help. If I had known that, I could have asked Jim Chaffer if he remembered the name! Rats!)
I had taken pictures of the three brothers (David, John, James) that we have gathered over the years, and showed them to him. He seemed quite taken with them and asked more questions about how the family came to be in the area. I was happy to tell him the story – briefly. After about 20 minutes, we parted company and I was happy as a clam and figure I can always contact Rich or Jim and see if we can find any further connection with the Chaffer family.
After leaving the Jim Chaffer farm, we drove on back toward Scott Mickna’s farm and the Presbyterian Cemetery and then continued driving north past them on Dee-Mack Road. A little after a big hog farm, Rich turned left and pointed out some farmland that he thinks might have been where James and Elizabeth lived during part of their stay in Illinois. He thinks he might have some old farm plats that might show some of the information, so will look for that when he has time.
As we drove up to the Presbyterian Cemetery to get Odyssey, there was a woman standing at the gate, looking into the cemetery. She came over and said she was looking for the graves of some Nofsingers (?). She was from the area, but hadn’t known where some family were buried. (Lots of people seem to be visiting cemeteries these days!) We all chatted for a while, and then I said my great thanks to Rich for his time and effort, and got into Odyssey to begin the trip home.
I went back to Morton, filled up the gas tank and picked up Rte 74 and on to I-55. Before I got to Joliet, where I knew the Chicago traffic would pick up, I stopped for lunch and time to settle a little. Just kept grinning all the way through my sandwich! What a trip! I felt really good that I had not only found the object of my search – the Raitt gravestone – but, had found much more information that I ever would have imagined, and met some wonderful, helpful people!
Then, into the fray of Chicago traffic. Road construction everywhere, trucks all over the place, four full lanes of all kinds of vehicles and stupid toll gates every 10-13 miles. Total concentration on driving until I reached Glenview again about 3:30 in the afternoon.
So, ends the story of my little trip downstate and what I found. Tantalizing to think of what other goodies we can still uncover down there. I shall be contacting the Tazewell County Genealogical Society as Rich was pretty sure they could come up with some more Raitt information. And, I’ll certainly try to keep the connections with those I met during the trip
As a follow-up, on 7 February 2010, Jane wrote that she had heard from Rich Brehmer, the county surveyor, whom she met during her visit to Deer Creek and he is trying to get the old abandoned Deercreek Cemetery reinstated as an official cemetery. If he does not succeed, then he will try to get some kind of ownership credentials applied so that the farm on which it sits can never take it over and plow it under. Jane will work with Rich on this aspect and plans to go back down this year to see and record the grave site again and see what else she can contribute to the plan.
In July 2013, Jane made a second trip to Deer Creek and wrote up another journal.
The Deer Creek Cemetery: 3rd Ave. and Dee-Mack Road, Deer Creek, IL
I drive down to one of the two gates into the cemetery on Dee-Mack Road, the verge is much grown over, and the gate is closed with some wiring. There is a nice, metal fence along the east edge along Dee-Mack Road, but the other three sides are a simple wire fence. Undaunted, I fiddle with the wire and lift the latch to enter the grounds. By this time, the sheep have taken fright and moved off to the Mickna farmyard to get away from me! I look through the cemetery which has many old limestone markers which are badly decomposed due to wind, rain, snow, etc. There are not many newer stones and it’s obvious there have not been any recent burials there. The wind is blowing very hard and it’s cold and raw. I’m not finding what I’d hoped for, so finally I leave (carefully wiring up the gate again – don’t want those sheep wandering out into the road!).
The Mt. Zion Cemetery: Deer Creek, IL
Following the directions that Scott gave me, I wound my way around Rte 150 and found the Mt. Zion cemetery which is on a rise of land and very nicely kept. It’s obviously the current main cemetery for Deer Creek and probably the surrounding area. After one drive-through, I could see that the oldest part of the grounds were on the far west side, so I parked there, and began to walk the rows, looking for a Raitt/Motley stone. (One of the problems with this project is that James Raitt’s story never said what was on the stone or gave a description of it – only that it was set in cement. He also only described the location as The Deer Creek Cemetery, which could be anywhere.) Again, a fruitless search and, finding no marker, I hopped in Odyssey again and tried to follow the directions Scott had given me for another small cemetery in the area. I couldn’t find it, so found my way back to Deer Creek and stopped at Casey’s (a combination gas/small items/food shop that is a chain store in the area-like 7-11). There, an older lady named Cathy took time off from the hot dog grill and took me outside to steer me in the right direction.
The Buckeye Cemetery: Near Deer Creek, IL
This time, I did find another cemetery, again on a rise of ground with a big fence around it. As I’ve come to expect, all the older stones were on the west side of the cemetery. Another walk-through brought me no further to my goal. I was, however, beginning to recognize some of the family names that have obviously been in this territory for a long time. (I learned later from Rich Brehmer that I was completely out of Tazewell County by this time, so was searching in the wrong place!) (I’d also become very frustrated by the gravestones that were carved in limestone which deteriorates very quickly in the open prairie weather – many of them now unreadable. Also, many stones were placed with the carving facing west/northwest where the weather would do the most damage to them. All stones should be facing away from the weather so as to keep deterioration at a minimum! Like I’m an expert.)
The Roberson Cemetery: Near Deer Creek, IL
From Cathy at Casey’s I had gotten instructions via Rte 150 to yet another cemetery up near a big church. So, back into Odyssey and off we go. Eventually, I come to the Newcastle Mennonite Church, a quite large/new building with a youth center being built and lots of parking space. Went inside and talked to the receptionist who was very kind and directed me to a small cemetery ½ mile away at the corner of Chaffer Road and Queenwood Road. I went there and came to the Roberson Cemetery. Quite small, but well-kept and with NO TREPASSING signs on the gate. The gate, however, was not locked and by this time, being impervious to warnings, I went on in and only needed a few minutes to walk the whole site. No Raitt/Motley stone, but yes, there were Robertsons buried there. Who else?
By this time, I’ve had quite a day, am thoroughly chilled and my hair whipped into little ringlets all over. I looked like the Greek statues of Apollo! Finding my way back to the Comfort Inn in Morton, I called Art Kennedy and Rich Brehmer and left v-mails for them about my search and asked them to call me at the hotel if they had any information I could use. I drove over to a Wal-Mart, and bought an armful of flowers to put on the graves that I might find. I then walked from the hotel over to the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, had some soup and salad and read the paper for ½ hour. On the way out, I bought a yellow, fleece shirt (at 60% off!) that would keep me snuggy warm over the next two days. Then, back to the hotel and review maps and information for the next day’s adventure. Phone rings and it is Rich Brehmer.
Talk with Rich Brehmer:
Rich is the tax assessor for Deer Creek area and also is a surveyor. He is also actively involved with the genealogy of the area and works with the Tazewell Genealogical Society who has many books and lots of information about the county and the area. It’s an agency I haven’t used yet, although I’ve seen their web site. I went over my project with Rich and he said he recognized the Raitt name and felt the grave site was, in fact, at the Presbyterian Cemetery over at Scott Mickna’s farm – the first place I looked today! He also was interested in the “Dorward” name in our family since his wife’s great-grandmother, Margaret Dorward is also buried at the Presbyterian cemetery. (I remember seeing her stone at my morning visit.) She also was from Arbroath, Scotland, and we wondered if the families knew each other before coming to America, or if by chance, due to the similar name, they were related in some way. Or, if perchance they had met on the boat coming over. His family also has in their possession some of the old records from the Presbyterian Church which once stood on the land where the cemetery is. Both the Dorwards and Raitts were members of that church. Rich said he would be willing to do some investigating this evening and call me back if he found anything.
After getting off the phone with Rich, I had a message waiting from Art Kennedy. I called him back and he indicated that he held the records for the Mt. Zion Cemetery for the village of Deer Creek. I gave him the names I was looking for and he checked his lists but none of the names were there. We decided that Bridget and the children were not at Mt. Zion, but at least it was a confirmation where they weren’t!
About ½ hour later, Rich Brehmer called back and had found several records regarding the James Raitt family: baptism records of the children, letters of dismissal (introduction) for membership in the Presbyterian Church; some census records with their names; Deer Creek Cemetery (which was once known as the Presbyterian Cemetery) list of graves which included Bridget Motley, Marion Violet and Henry Raitt; some pictures and narrative about the church and Deer Creek; some minutes of the Church; and some information about the Doig family of Arbroath and a list of the family of Robert Dorward (including Archibald and Cecelia Crabb!?). He said he would make copies of all the items for me as best he could – since the items are very old and not easy to read in some cases.
He said he would go out to the Mickna farm on Tuesday morning and look for the Raitt stone which he was pretty sure was there. We agreed we would meet on Wednesday morning at the farm and see if it was there, and maybe look around at some of the other locations related to the story.
Lexington Genealogical & Historical Society: Lexington, IL
After breakfast at the hotel (included in the room rate), I put gas ($2.75 a gal.) in Odyssey and set off on Rte 74 to I-55 and on up to Lexington, IL, where I had made arrangements to stop at The Fort – the Lexington Genealogical and Historical Society and meet Dennis Hieronymus. Dennis had done some background searching for me about the John D. Raitt/Taylor family and had located the Taylor gravesites at Payne Cemetery and West Lawn Cemetery. They didn’t have much on the John D. Raitt family while they were in Illinois, so that’s an area of future search. We talked for 1 ½ hours about the Raitt’s story and how to do research. While talking, Madelaine, Dennis’ co-worker copied off some Dorward family records to give to Rich Brehmer – in case he hadn’t already found them.
Chenoa Historical Society: Chenoa, IL
About 11:00, I called Melvin Ringenberg at Chenoa, IL, to see if he was available to meet me about the Payne Cemetery. In earlier days, I had found Melvin through the Chenoa City Clerk who referred me to him as a Cemetery Board and Historical Society member with lots of information. He had told me then that if I ever came down that way, to let him know and he would take me to the near-by cemeteries and show me their historical society. I contacted Melvin a week ago, and we made arrangements to meet after I had visited in Lexington.
Hopped into Odyssey again, and instead of taking I-55 up to Chenoa from Lexington, I took the Old Route 66 which runs parallel to I-55 and is still in active use, albeit two-way traffic. I noticed as I drove, that the original roadway of Route 66 is still off to the left (west) of the current one, but no longer in use. (Every mile it’s closed with “STOP – ROAD ENDS!” signs and blocked with grassy berms.) It took about 15 minutes to get to Chenoa, but just as I was about to turn toward the business district, I got a call on my travel phone from Rich Brehmer. He was at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Deer Creek standing in front of the Raitt gravestone! He said it sits right there and sticks out like a sore thumb and how could I have missed it yesterday! HAH! I pulled off into a bank parking lot because I was so excited! It was right there in front of my nose yesterday, and somehow I had missed it – perhaps because it doesn’t look like a 100 year-old stone! We made arrangements to meet there tomorrow morning around 9:00 am. I am to call him when I’m ready to leave and he’ll plan to meet me there.
On to the Chenoa Historical Society, where I met Melvin and we had a nice walk around the Society building, including items that had come out of the HS cornerstone (newspapers, lists of names, various items, etc.). They have some great old things and some good records from Chenoa’s early days. Melvin showed me the panels that show pictures of all the kids from the HS beginnings, including his two boys and two girls. He never finished HS as he left school to go into the Navy in 1944. I then followed him in his red pick-up truck out to Payne Cemetery, which is only 2-3 miles NE of town. Once there, he left me to walk the grave rows on my own.
The Payne Cemetery: Near Chenoa, IL
Although the sun is out, I stayed in the car and drove back and forth over the grassy road areas. I’m learning to keep out of the chilly wind as long as possible. This time, I’m better prepared with my yellow fleece shirt to keep me warm! After a little driving, I spot two Taylor gravestones and get out to take a look. One is for Alexander and Elizabeth Taylor and the other is for John and Lottie Taylor. I think Alex and Eliz are Mike’s Great-Grandparents, but I’m not familiar with the other names (perhaps they are not even related!). But, with the information provided by the Lexington Gen & Hist Society, I cannot find Elizabeth May Taylor who died in 1964. This is Alex and Eliz’s daughter, who apparently never married and was supposed to have been buried at Payne Cemetery, too.
While I was puzzling and walking up and down the rows, in case I had missed her grave, a van with an older man and woman and another man drove up and one gentleman got out and began looking at a fresh grave nearby. After checking it, he called over and asked if he could help me find someone. I told him who I was looking for – and Serendipity again! – he turns out to be Gerald Campbell (another Scotsman, of course), and the sexton for the Payne Cemetery. He had come out to the gravesite of his Mother who had passed away recently to see if the final date had been carved into the headstone (it had not). They were returning home, and he invited me to follow them about 3 miles north to Ocoya, and he would get out his records, and see if we could find daughter, Elizabeth May. I did so, and sitting in their kitchen, he and Mrs. Campbell and I found the record that she is indeed buried with her mother and father, but her grave is unmarked. Gerald looked a little further, checking the plat of ownership of the graves, and found that their gravesite was owned by the Mother, Elizabeth and had four spaces. So, that little fact is resolved.