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Bachelors Grove Looking For A Little Peace

Bachelors Grove Looking For A Little Peace
Chicago Tribune
Special to the Tribune
October 30, 2000
Charles Stanley

Credit to Michelle Bonadurer of Chicago, Illinois for sending in this material.

Bachelors Grove Cemetery in southwest Cook County is said to be one of the most haunted places in the Chicago area, with tales of ghostly images, mysterious lights and grim deaths.

The final resting place for pioneer settlers and others certainly looks the part. Located in forest preserves north of Tinley Park and accessible only by an unmarked wooded path, the cemetery is a tangle of toppled tombstones and overgrown vegetation. The perimeter fence has huge holes.

Decades of desecration, including attempts to unearth caskets, have left Bachelors Grove a shambles. It was not always this way, said Brad Bettenhausen, president of the Tinley Park Historical Society and Tinley Park village treasurer.

"According to the early accounts of the cemetery, it was very much a parklike setting," he said. "People would go there on a Sunday afternoon and have a picnic. There is a pond next to it where they could go fishing. It was a wonderful place to spend time."

When the property was sold in 1864, the deed made mention of reserving 1 acre for a cemetery. Roughly 50 years later, the land surrounding the cemetery was bought by the Cook County Forest Preserve District and today is part of Rubio Woods.

The cemetery was founded just after the rural cemetery movement began to take hold in the United States, marking a departure from the tradition of crowded church and community graveyards, which were thought unhealthy and unattractive.

Plots in rural cemeteries were maintained by family members. Gradually, family ties dimmed and the upkeep began to suffer.

By the 1950s, the cemetery's remote location made it a popular lovers' lane. And before too much longer, some durable urban legends had found a home there as well.

"Historically there are three stories that have been told about the cemetery," Bettenhausen said. "Two are just classic campfire stories, but one is a Bachelors Grove exclusive."

That tale concerns a farmhouse with a white picket fence and warm light coming from within that is said to disappear when anyone tries to get close.

"From the accounts I have heard, the house has been located on both sides of 143rd Street everywhere from west of Harlem Avenue to up Midlothian Turnpike," Bettenhausen said. "The new twist on this story is that if you go into the house, you are never seen again."

There are other tales as well, including sightings of darting blue lights and a ghostly woman carrying her child.

Bettenhausen said the tales, which have increased in the last 20 years, have brought vandals who destroyed the grave makers and the grounds.

"A lot of the tombstones were moved around by vandals, so some of them don't mark the proper grave site," said Ursula Bielski, author of the book "Chicago Haunts: Ghostly Lore of the Windy City."

"Certainly any good researcher could claim that has added not only to the talk of Bachelors Grove being haunted, but to the actual haunting of it," Bielski said. "The moving of people's gravestones--what better thing to cause haunting than by disrupting otherwise very happily buried people?"

Bielski said the cemetery needs better care and supervision, but it should not be closed to the public.

"I think the majority of the people are just curious and overwhelmingly respectful of the fact that it is a cemetery," Bielski said. "It's really a unique piece of history, and I 'd like to see some of its sense of tranquility restored."

One of the last caretakers was the late Clarence Fulton of Tinley Park, who had many pioneer ancestors buried there.

"My dad tried to help, but it was beyond him too," said his son, former Tinley Park Mayor Ken Fulton. "The place had gotten too run down and there wasn't enough help."

In the early 1970s, Clarence Fulton unsuccessfully attempted to get Bremen Township to take over the cemetery but finally convinced Cook County to assume ownership, Bettenhausen said.

For awhile, the cemetery received regular care through agreements between the county and the Forest Preserve District, but those deals have long since expired.

"Up until then, the cemetery was being mowed and in fairly decent shape," Bettenhausen said. "But since then, it pretty much has been neglected."

Maintenance of the handful of cemeteries the county owns is the responsibility of the county's Department of Facilities Management. The department refuses to discuss its care policy, insisting all communication be through letters.

A spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger said the cemetery has not been forgotten.

"The Forest Preserve District recently performed a general kind of dressing up and some trimming of vegetation on the property," said deputy press secretary John Gibson. "The county is evaluating maintenance options for the future, whether it's a contractual arrangement or something the county itself will handle."

Maintenance of old cemeteries is a statewide concern. A recent series of hearings on cemeteries conducted by Illinois Comptroller Daniel W. Hynes, whose office provides oversight on public cemetery operations, has led to a legislative proposal that would impose new cemetery care standards.

The legislation, House Bill 3988, has passed the House and is awaiting action by the Senate.

"Some of the cemeteries owned by local governments are very, very old and have historic value," said Chip Schmadeke, the comptroller's general counsel. "But there's little interest in doing something about them, whether from a financial standpoint or because the public just isn't clamoring for rehabilitation."

Statewide, more than 1,000 abandoned cemeteries have become the responsibility of local governments, said Whitney Rosen, the comptroller's legislative counsel, who drafted HB 3988.

"This is something local governments have inherited and they don't have the funding to clean them up," Rosen said. "County governments do have the authority to spend money on abandoned cemeteries, but it's a judgment call how you allocate your resources, and the cemeteries unfortunately lose out."

The bill would use cemetery fees and other revenue to create a $25,000 fund for grants for cemetery maintenance.

"We realize that's not very much, but our hope is this would be seed money and in addition to this would be any money the General Assembly might see fit to appropriate," Rosen said.

Bettenhausen said Bachelors Grove needs more prominent access and visibility.

Among Clarence Fulton's papers turned over to the Tinley Park Historical Society Museum is an old drawing for a new entrance road and parking area for the cemetery off 143rd Street.

"Because the cemetery now is so inaccessible, the county police don't want to deal with it," Bettenhausen said. "But with the new road, it would be easier to monitor what goes on in the cemetery--not to mention making it easier for people who have a relative there to go back and visit."