A Peaceful Place for Storytelling

by Chip Joyce
Photography by Bill Homel

Each fall, Peoria’s storied past comes alive in the historic Springdale Cemetery.

Pictured above: Actors from the 2016 Historic Springdale Cemetery Tours. Standing: Chip Joyce (as Elihu Powell), Laurel Ellis, Clare Zell (as Lydia Moss Bradley), Melissa Blain (as Jane Flanagan), Amanda Maddalozzo (as Olga Lekas). Kneeling: Ben Abbot (as Horace Capron, Jr.) and Tequila.

Perhaps no other property in the Peoria area is riddled with more urban myths and legends than Springdale Cemetery. Since practically its beginning, Springdale has been the subject of many ghost stories and tales of other strange happenings. However, each fall the inhabitants of Springdale do return to life… sort of—when the Historic Springdale Cemetery Tour returns the first two weekends of October.

All in the Family
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the popular tour, created by Prairie Folklore Theatre’s Brian “Fox” Ellis to highlight the many stories (some largely forgotten) of those resting within Springdale. It also provides an opportunity to raise a little money for the property, which has seen vast improvements to its grounds in recent years.

“Fox” still participates in the tour as his busy calendar allows; in addition to an extensive travel schedule, he also operates a bed-and-breakfast in the historic Bishop Hill community with his wife, Kim. Today the organization and direction of the Springdale tour is overseen by Fox’s daughter, Laurel Ellis.

“I remember the very first cemetery tours when I was only 10 years old, and how much fun I had as an actress in them,” she recalls. “Being able to take over and actually be in charge of this amazing project from my dad is something I could never have foreseen. I’m so glad I can carry on this tradition.” Clearly, the passion for history and storytelling runs deep in this family!

Connecting Through Stories
Tours like this one are not uncommon in historical cemeteries during the fall season. Yet few of these permanent resting places are as large, or as rich in history, as Springdale Cemetery, first chartered in 1855 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Springdale tour is a great way to connect the people of today with long-lost stories of Peoria’s past—not to mention a perfect chance to pause and appreciate the crisp and pleasant autumn weather. Each year a different theme or location is selected for the tour. There are 227 acres within Springdale’s property, and even after 15 years, the Springdale tour has only begun to cover its expansive grounds. There will never be a shortage of stories to tell!

Guests rotate in groups around six stations within the designated area, and actors at each station inhabit the look and personality of the person whose story they tell. Over the years, the tour has introduced audiences to the people and stories behind many of the familiar names seen on streets, businesses and institutions in the community, including the likes of Lydia Moss Bradley, Henry Detweiller and Robert Avery (as in Peoria’s Averyville).

The tour is performed by many of the same core actors each year. We performers research, write and execute our own stories, which makes for a wide variety of interpretations. Most of the research comes from toiling for hours over archived letters, journals, articles and other materials at our own downtown public library—some of them in the subject’s own handwriting. As you listen to the stories being told, you might hear a little music, poetry or other surprises that individual storytellers like to incorporate into their performances.

Whiskey City Characters
I have been a performer in the Springdale tour nearly every year since 2010. This has allowed me to discover and portray revered Peorians like the internationally renowned sculptor Joseph Petarde, whose best-known work locally is perhaps the exterior façade of downtown Peoria’s G.A.R. Hall. I’ve also come to know Leo Schwabacher, who was among the nearly 1,200 lives lost at sea in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May of 1915. Though Leo is not buried in Springdale, he is memorialized there with a stone at his family’s plot in the Mt. Sinai section. Last year, I portrayed Elihu Powell, a lawyer and judge who was a friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln’s; his son also happened to be the first internment at Springdale in 1857.

Besides learning about my own characters, I am constantly amazed at what I learn from the other performances: tales from our whiskey-soaked past, like the life of Almiron Cole, who opened Peoria’s first distillery; or Frank “Spig” Wead, an aviator and writer who was once portrayed on film by John Wayne. Yet another was William Hawley Smith, a local writer who boasted Mark Twain as a friend. The second year I was involved, we devoted the entire tour to the forgotten stories of Civil War soldiers and nurses buried at Springdale’s Soldier Hill.

For an actor, this opportunity is quite different from others we get in this area. We all relish the chance to inject our own thoughts and feelings into the presentation, and sometimes we even get to meet people with deep connections to those we are portraying. I have had the privilege of meeting descendants of several of the characters I’ve portrayed on the tour. So in some cases, it becomes a legitimate responsibility to present our characters in a way that is compelling and faithful to whom they were.

Performing in the Springdale tour for so many years has also given me a deep appreciation of the property. Every year when I come back, I see the grounds in better condition than the year prior, and I think that is something we can all appreciate. It would seem that the rumors, myths and legends about the place have declined as its physical condition and security have improved.

The Journey Continues
The tour has established a faithful following over the years; many families and groups make it an annual outing. New faces discover the tour each year as well, and as it grows, so do the opportunities to hear Springdale’s stories. Earlier this summer, the first-ever “Summer Snippet” tour was offered, with several performers returning to present some of their favorite characters for one afternoon only. This allowed regular attendees to “get a fix,” while giving new audience members a taste of what the tour is like each October. The tour returns this year with a wide array of new and interesting stories to tell. “I’ve enjoyed every step of the journey,” adds Laurel Ellis, “and look forward to making the tours bigger and better every year!”

Each walking tour usually lasts between 60 and 70 minutes. Arrive early, as tours do fill up and reservations are strongly recommended! As you enter, be sure to admire the recently remodeled entrance on Prospect Road, a clear indicator that Springdale Cemetery will continue to be a magnificent place of history and legacy for generations to come. a&s

As always, the Historic Springdale Cemetery Tours take place the first two weekends of October. Tours begin at 6pm on Friday evenings, and at noon and 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations can be made by emailing springdalecemeterytours@gmail.com or calling (309) 696-0956. Check them out on Facebook for the latest updates.

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