Few people think of the small cemeteries that line our county’s back roads as historical places. They drive by these burying grounds without a second thought to the stories that might be found there. The Powell Cemetery on South Mulford Road near the Kishwaukee Forest Preserve is such a place.
It has been mostly forgotten and one cannot even tell that a cemetery exists there except for the gate. The sign has a date of 1859 listed but the cemetery began much earlier than that. In an attempt to preserve the few stone that are left, they have been buried in a small area toward the cente of the plot of enclosed land. No one has any record of where the stones, or the bodies under them, were originally located.
Most of the people buried there in the early days of Winnebago County lived in the nearby Butler Township. This would later become Cherry Valley. The area first was settled in 1835 when a man named Joseph P. Griggs built a house along the Kishwaukee River. Butler competed with a town a half mile up the river named Newburg. Both of these villages had stores, a hotel, a blacksmith and mills. The name of Butler was changed to Cherry Valley sometime around 1851 or 1852 when the railroad chose to run through the town.
The land that would later become the Powell Cemetery was owned by Adonijah C. Powell and his wife Celestial. Adonijah was born in New York and he and Celestial were married in Ohio before traveling to Illinois. They settled on the farm where the cemetery would be located. Adonijah was very active in the community and served as Highway Commissioner for the region.
Cemetery records show burials began on the farm in the 1840’s, though Adonijah would not apply for the cemetery to be registered until 1859. The earliest burial was Adonijah and Celestial’s own infant daughter Phebe, who died on February 4, 1846. They would bury two more children here before leaving the area for Michigan. Ten-month old Theodore was buried in September 1851 and 5-month old Eliza in August of 1855.
But it’s the burials that came a few years later that tell of a much sadder tale. During a few-week period between September and December of 1854, twelve people were buried in this little space. Though research has not definitely proved what illness killed all of these people, articles from the time mentioned a possible cholera outbreak.
One family from the area was hit especially hard during the outbreak. Most of the information on this family has been lost to time but a few records remain. The 1850 Census lists David Daniel Baxter and his wife Olive living in Canton, New York with seven of their eight children. Sometime between that census and the fall of 1851, the family, now including their married daughter, Mary and her husband William Hinkley, settled in the Butler area. This was confirmed by records stating that David and Olive’s son Asa died on September 23, 1851. He was two years old and was buried in Powell.
According to burial records Mary and William’s daughter Emma was the first from the family to die during the outbreak on September 23, 1854. David and Olive’s twenty-year old daughter Cynthia died on September 28, followed the next day by her brother, Rinaldo and her mother, Olive. David himself died on October the third. Other families in the area suffered multiple losses including the Powells. One does not even want to imagine what it must have been like for these families and their neighbors during this heartbreaking time. Infant mortality was incredibly high during this time but to lose two or more children in just a few days would be hard for even these tough pioneers.
One of the last burials in Powell Cemetery was especially moving. The stone is very worn and covered by dirt now making it difficult to read. It has “Little Hattie daughter of G.” written on it and no last name can be deciphered. The date is March 12, 1865. Research into burial records and websites offered no further clue. But research into old newspapers finally revealed this little child’s name. She was one-year old, Hattie Heath, daughter of G. and TL. Heath. Hattie was Adonijah and Celestial’s granddaughter. She died in their home and was buried in the little cemetery nearby. Hattie’s mother, T. Lovina wrote a poem that was published in the paper with the little girl’s death notice.
“We miss our little loving girl,
Yes, we miss her mirthful glee,
Her little toys nor silken curl,
Will bring her back to me,
In Heaven she lives to suffer no more.
She is not lost, only gone before,
To wait for us on that blessed shore,
Where love ones part no more.”
-T.Lovina Powell Heath
These little cemeteries that dot Winnebago county roads are an important link to our county’s beginnings. Time has worn away much of the information contained on the tombstones and the stories of these early settlers are in danger of being lost. Hopefully, the next time you drive past one of these places you may pause to reflect on the history that lies there.
Copyright © 2019, 2022 Kathi Kresol