Every Tombstone Tells a Tale

by Lori Beckham

Prairie Folklore Theatre presents its 11th annual cemetery tour…

The Historic Springdale Cemetery Tour is approaching… a walking excursion into Peoria’s notable place of rest, where the dead rise once a year to tell tales to the living. It’s a theatrical and educational tour, conceived by Brian “Fox” Ellis of Prairie Folklore Theatre.

“We’re a touring ensemble,” explains Ellis, PFT co-founder. “Prairie Folklore Theatre was founded about a dozen years ago, and the cemetery tour is one of the big things we do every year.” It takes place in the city’s sprawling Springdale Cemetery, which Ellis calls “one of the most beautiful places in Peoria, with tombstones that are worthy of any art museum in the world.”

Bringing history back to life, the tour enlists the aid of six to eight actors, who play the roles of significant citizens from the city’s past. Among Ellis’ favorite Peorians to portray is Robert Avery. “He founded Avery Tractor, and there’s a community in Peoria known as Averyville that he founded as the mayor.”

Ellis’ wife, Kim Thrush, particularly enjoys hearing the stories of Peoria’s prominent women. “Some of the ones I really like are Lydia Moss Bradley… [and] I’m really hoping you can do Phoebe Buehler,” she tells her husband. “‘Work hard, treat the people right, and prosper.’ I say that all the time since I heard that performance.”

“Phoebe Buehler was the wife of one of the wealthier Peorians,” Ellis explains. “They were great benefactors that helped founded the home of the elderly… It’s just amazing how many stories there are. There are 70,000 people buried [in Springdale], and every tombstone is a tale.”

While theatrical cemetery tours are nothing new in towns with historical significance, Ellis explains that the Springdale tour has elements unlike many others. “I think we are the only cemetery tour that does it as musical theatre,” he says. “We will often write an original song or two, and/or choose a song from that period that helps tell that character’s story.”

Where most cemetery tours have just one character at each stop, “We always at least have a station or two where it’s a married couple, a mother and daughter, a family, [etc.],” Ellis notes. “By having several characters in one station, it becomes more of a dialogue with the audience… It makes it more interactive, and an opportunity for more drama.”

Ellis adds that while the annual tour doesn’t typically have a theme, this year’s is a look back to their “greatest hits.” “We have been doing this for nearly a dozen years, and we have generally not repeated characters. Every year, we go to a different section of the cemetery and research new characters and new stories. This year, we’re going to let the actors… choose some of their favorite characters.”

Besides breathing new life into Peoria’s past, the tour also serves as a fundraiser for the cemetery. “We’ve done some pretty amazing things in the past. We’ve provided seed money to restore the soldier on Soldier Hill, we’ve planted a couple dozen large trees… and we help to fund general maintenance and upkeep.”

The Historic Springdale Cemetery Tour takes place the first two weekends of October, rain or shine, on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm and 4pm. Tickets are $10/adults; $5/children; $20 maximum/family. Guests are encouraged to bring folding chairs and arrive 15 minutes prior to the tour’s departure. Learn more at prairiefolkloretheater.com or by calling (309) 689-8000, and voice your character suggestions on the Historic Illinois Facebook page. iBi


Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/ibi/2013/oct/every-tombstone-tells-tale