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State and volunteers at odds over neglected historic Illinois cemetery

The state complains understaffing is the problem, but volunteers say Iowa rules and red tape won’t let them help restore and maintain a neglected and over...

In May, News Eight shared the story of the Freeland-Cox Cemetery, a small cemetery near Hampton, Illinois that is overgrown with scattered gravestones. A Civil War soldier is among the 27 people buried there.

The cemetery is in an eagle preserve on land owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. When asked why the state was not maintaining the cemetery, a spokesperson with the DNR said they were lacking the resources.

“We have a very small staff. We have biologists that have multiple county territories, the biologist who oversees that site is actually at a different state park, so we really don’t have enough people to do that,” said Young, in an interview with News Eight in May.

Young said they would like to have volunteers.

“What we usually do, in those cases is we try and find some people in the community who are interested in local history, interested in old cemeteries and have a passion for taking care of these places and we partner with them,” he said at the time.

Orin Rockhold fits that description. As an administrator at the Rock Island County Historical Society, he's fixed several township cemeteries.

"They're all cleaned up and seeded. They're like a park," said Rockhold.

He wants to the do the same to Freeland's, but the state won't let him.

"They own it. They want you to do it their way and you gotta take their class to learn how to do it," said Rockhold.

A class was held in the area in June, but it was full by the time the story of Freeland's Cemetery was aired and there hasn't been one offered since.

"My way wouldn't be any different than their way," said Rockhold.

"We want to be able to clean up you know all of the overgrowth and the tombstones that are broken, you know to mend them and to fix them that we can go in there and you know honor our ancestors," said Karin Ciacco, who has a deep connection with many of those buried in the cemetery.

"I have at least three cousins, three aunts and uncles and four grandparents, and of those four grandparents, two of them fought in the War of 1812," Ciacco said.

One of those men was named Moses Williamson.

"Moses himself was in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Tippecanoe," said Susannah Kriegshauser, who also has ancestors buried in the cemetery, "His brother, John, also was one of the famous 40 spies that changed the course of American history."

Somewhere in the cemetery is a gravestone for Mary Cox, who Ciacco wants to recognize as a Daughters of the American Revolution because she says her dad fought in the war.

"I can't stand not being able to go there and fix it up," said Ciacco.

Chris Young with the Illinois DNR declined an interview request, but said in an email they had been in contact with local preservationists but so far they had not received an application to conduct any work at the cemetery.

"I guess I'm just a stick in the mud cause it just kinda grates me that I gotta do it their way when I shouldn't have to," said Rockhold.

While questioning that requirement, Rockhold is also questioning if the state actually owns the cemetery. He has traced deeds and sales of the land back to the late 1800's, finding that the cemetery is still technically owned by a local family.

"I don't know why it's such a hassle, but the state is maintaining, the DNR, that in as much as that deed in the excepted clause, they own it. Well, they can assume that but legally that isn't right," said Rockhold.

"Agency records show IDNR owns the cemetery. However, even if it was not owned by IDNR, a permit would still be required," Young said in an email.

"I don't understand why the State thinks they need to get involved and throw up all these barricades," said Ciacco.  "I just want to be able to honor their tombs and go there," she said.

"It's just history gone, just history gone," said Kriegshauser,

They simply want the cemetery maintained, so that the details of their ancestors are not worn away.

Young says staff from the DNR would be willing to hold a cemetery workshop near Princeton, Illinois or another cemetery nearby to accommodate the group from Hampton.

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