If you plan on attending next year’s Cemetery Walk, I have one piece of advice for you: wear comfortable shoes.
I’d never been to 's annual Cemetery Walk, organized three years running by the Historical Preservation Commission, and I showed up Wednesday night woefully unprepared. Looking back, I probably could have figured it out—the words “cemetery” and “walk” are in the name, so I should have expected we’d be walking through a cemetery.
Still, uncomfortable shoes. Learn from my mistake.
Apart from that, the Walk was extremely cool. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, here it is: each year, the HPC finds actors to portray well-known or influential people buried in . Previous walks have seen folks like Daniel Gray, the founder of Montgomery, and P.O. Douglas, one of the village’s best-known mayors, brought to life.
The best part, though, is the atmosphere. The walk takes place after dark, the only light coming from flashlights and some well-placed torches. It’s more moody than scary—the goal of the walk is to educate, not terrify. I’ll admit to some goosebumps, though, especially when I first caught sight of the actors, in full period regalia, standing motionless behind their tombstones.
Debbie Buchanan, executive assistant to the village manager, works with the commission to get this organized each year. She told me that the first year drew about 100 people, and the second 225. This year? Let’s just say they did better. When I arrived at 7:30 p.m., half an hour into the event, there were hundreds of people in line.
I heard several turnout estimates, most between 350 and 400. The absolutely perfect weather no doubt helped that total. But it’s clear the Cemetery Walk is catching on.
And why not? It’s a very cool thing. This year, there were seven actors at four gravesites, each with a fascinating story to tell.
John Aman and Jeanette Lee, both members of the Historical Preservation Commission, were up first, playing Vine Watkins and his wife, Catherine Gray Watkins. Catherine Gray was the daughter of Daniel Gray, and her husband was the man who brought Lyon Metal Company to Montgomery. After leaving the village in 1872, they lived in Chicago and Aurora, and both died in the early years of the 20th Century.
Chet Albright, ambassador with Dieterle Funeral Home, played Vincent Xenophon Beher. (“You can call me Xenophon,” he said with a chuckle. “That starts with an X, you know.”) Beher was an Austrian immigrant who played the bugle for the Union army in the Civil War, and later owned the Montgomery Grocery store. He died in 1913 at age 59.
Jamie Belongia, assistant to the village manager, played Pam Lychner, the most recently-departed of the evening’s specters. Lychner is buried with her two children: Shannon, 10, and Katie, 8. All three died in a plane crash in 1996. (Buchanan’s granddaughter, Phoenix Buchanan, played Shannon, while Haley Peck portrayed Katie.)
But before that, Lychner, the victim of an assault in 1990, was a champion of victim’s rights in Illinois. She started the organization Justice for All, and inspired the Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996, which requires sex offenders to register whenever they move to new locations.
Each of the kids got lines to say, which was sweet. Debbie Buchanan tells me that Phoenix is a budding genealogist, excited about history, and wants to eventually play a main character in the Cemetery Walk.
After a brief hike, we met our final actor, Jerad Chipman, a village planner. Chipman played Bernard J. Cigrand, the founder of Flag Day. He lived to see it named a national event in 1916, but it was not deemed a national holiday until 1949, after his death.
Chipman was fantastic in his role, asking the enthralled kids whether what he’d heard about Flag Day becoming a holiday was true. “Yes,” they answered with excitement, and Chipman returned that joy back to them.
I’ve learned a lot about the history of Montgomery since launching Patch—you can’t edit a weekly for eight months and not pick up a few things. But I have to say, this was a great way to pick up more about the long and winding past of this village. I think I would have pulled in higher grades in history if I had ghosts telling me their stories.
Long story short, I had a great time at the Cemetery Walk, and I applaud the village and the HPC for putting it together. If the ever-growing attendance is any indication, the idea is a hit. I can’t wait for next year.
Although I’ll remember to wear more appropriate shoes.