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McLean County, Illinois
History and Genealogy

Smith Grove Cemetery History

McLean County, Illinois

(Submitted by: Penny Hughes)

By Maurice and Dorothy Jones
Date unknown.
Article given to the Towanda District Library in August 2004
Appended with veteran and Board of Trustee information in 2005

A burial or cemetery was one of the early needs of the settlers who come to this area. The Victorians coined the word "cemetery", which actually means, "a large dormitory for resting or a sleeping room."

On a high bank, overlooking Money Creek lies the Smith Grove Cemetery. On April 8, 1861, Abraham R. Jones, Sr. and his wife, Matilda, as well as Cyrus Jones and his spouse, Margaret K., deeded one acre or 43, 560 square feet of land to David Rayborn, James Wilson and Cyrus Jones, trustees of the Smith Grove Cemetery, and their successors in office, for the consideration of one dollar. This land has been subsequently enclosed with a chain link fence. It is easy to remember the beginning of the cemetery because four days after the land was deeded, the first shots were heard at Fort Sumter and the Civil War had commenced. The State of Illinois issued license number 592 to the Smith Grove Cemetery.

The ground was surveyed and platted with 115 lots. In 1861 the going price was $5.00 for one lot containing six burial plots. Between 1862 and 1867 the lot price was reduced to $3.00 per lot, again consisting of six burial plots.

In the early years, the cemetery, or dormitory of people at rest, was mostly populated with children. Laura Ann Jones was the first person to be buried at Smith Grove. Laura, only one year and three months old, was the daughter of Abraham R. Jones Jr. and his wife Nancy. She was laid to rest on November 27, 1861. During the heart rending years of the War Between the States, 1861 through 1865, fourteen little ones, all under the age of five, along with three adults, were interred at Smith Grove Cemetery. The children succumbed to a variety of maladies which included: inflammation of the bowels, brain fever, small pox, typhoid fever, flu and "a grain of corn lodged in the throat." The first adult woman buried in Smith Grove was Rachel Wise, age 69, who perished from "cancer of the face" on July 6, 1863. In 1864 the first male was buried at the age of 71 years. Bleeding lungs and a bad heart are the reasons given for his demise.

As the years increased, so did the number of interments. For the nine year period of 1865 through 1874, 25 children and 8 adults were buried. Over the next 22 years, 1875 through 1897, 37 more children and 43 adults made Smith Grove their final resting place.

It is a spring day, the sun is shining, and it is perfect weather for a stroll through the cemetery. The first thing that strikes your eye is the beauty of the grave markers. The McLean County Historical Society recently had a lecture on the symbolism of grave markers. Tombstones represent an interesting form of art and each marker contains several discreet messages. After attending this program, I will never enter a cemetery seeing only dates and names. I now see the person's legacy more clearly.

At Smith Grove Cemetery, we can observe a microcosm of this special language. As one enters the cemetery there is a large stone on the right. Adorning this stone is a cluster of oak leaves. These leaves symbolize a strong faith and are typically used on the gravestones of adult men. But oak leaves are not the only flora used. A plethora of ivy leaves are also found on the stones in Smith Grove and these represent steadfastness of faith. Grape leaves, as well as bunches of ripe grapes, often denote wine, as used in Holy Communion to signify the blood of Christ and perhaps tell us that the deceased was mature in age. Leaves of another kind, this time Palm leaves, portray the hope of eternal salvation.

Many grave markers have flowers on them. Now as I look at the designs, I wonder if they were chosen for a special meaning or if they were simply used to create a beautiful picture. In our stroll, we see daisies, pansies, iris and over there is a lily - the symbol for purity and innocence. The lily was used to mark the resting place of children and adolescent females. On some of the headstones, one can almost smell the fragrance of the rose in full bloom. This stands for love and beauty and is used on the graves of adult women. When we see the rose still in bud, not having reached its glorious maturity, we can usually assume it is marking the final cradle of a younger person. Many graves are etched with a depiction of wine. Wine is used as a symbol for the substance of spiritual life as provided by Jesus.

Look over yonder and you will see an old stone. A weeping willow tree on the stone mourns the loss of Rachael Waltz in 1872. The weeping willow, however, also denotes regeneration of the spirit. The Lamb, like the one pictured on a stone dated 1873, has many meanings. Primarily used at the graves of children, the lamb brings forth thoughts of innocence and salvation. It reminds us that Christians are the sheep of Christ's flock and that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

A little farther along, we find two urns on a tombstone. One is draped. The Christians adopted this symbol for the physical remains of the deceased being in the grave while the soul had gone to Heaven. As can be expected, several graves have the sign of the cross denoting the deceased's Christian roots and the promise of eternal salvation. A scroll, depicting the Book of Life from the Old Testament, represents a record of the good and bad deeds of departed.

It is surprising to note that at Smith Grove, there are no figures of angels. Angels, being one of the more popular images portrayed, in flight either rising or descending, or in repose, at the graves site are messengers of God and bring comfort to the mourners. It is usually accepted that any image with wings represents a messenger of God.

Markers may have more than one symbol etched in their face. If you look, you will find a stone that has an open book, praying hands and a lily. We have already learned that the book may be representative of the Book of Life, or perhaps the Bible. The lily denotes purity and innocence. Hands, however, have more than one meaning and that meaning can be discerned by the positioning of them. If the hand is reaching downward, it is depicting the hand of God extending a blessing to the deceased and/or taking the soul of the dearly departed home to Heaven. A hand that has an index finger pointing upwards is giving assurance to the survivors that the loved one's soul has gone to Heaven. Clasped hands may mean that the husband and wife are united through out eternity.

A dove exemplifies the Holy Spirit and is also a herald of God and refers to peace. Doves may be shown descending, ascending or in repose. Other symbols used, but not found at Smith Grove Cemetery include anchors, arrows, bells, chains, clocks, columns, crowns, gates, heavenly cities, hour glasses, keys, lamps, moons, scales, seashells, stars, suns, torches, tree stumps or trunks, wheat, wheels and wreaths.

Grave markers often tell stories through their imagery and epitaphs. The older sandstone markers are often very difficult to read. I did, however, find this script, "But are they dead, no, no, they lived. Their happy spirits fly to heaven above and there receive the long expected prize." The Conger gravestone has listed, on its back, Revolutionary War veterans, the year(s) served and the state the brave warrior represented.

Beautiful scripts and, at the top of many of the stones, family monograms or initials proudly announce the loved one the stone guards.

As you visit your family and loved ones cemetery, take the time to open your eyes and look around. See what messages have been left behind on the grave markers of our ancestors. You will experience an art form that has been mostly lost to the expedience of name, date of birth and death. You will also encounter the whispers of the stones, telling you about the loved ones they so majestically watch over.

One of those stories is about our most famous person residing at Smith Grove Cemetery. Leonard Bliss, more commonly known as Baby Bliss, was born on May 4, 1865, in Blue Mound Township (which is the adjoining township to the east) the same day as Lincoln's body was passing through Bloomington on its way to Springfield. The aptly named child weighed in at 12 bouncing pounds and was simply average until the age of five. By age 11 he had attained the rather remarkable height of 6 feet and tipped the scales at 180 pounds. As Baby Bliss grew in age, he also grew in stature and circumference. Seventeen and still gaining, Leonard now had attained his full height and weighed 280 pounds. And still his girth grew until he reached 565 pounds with measurements of a 72 inch waist, 86 inch hips, 45 inch thighs and 17 inch calves.

At about the time Baby was 20 or so, the bicycle industry was developing and the American Bicycle Company in Chicago heard about this extraordinarily large man. With marketing geniuses in tow, they conceived of a promotion to build a special bicycle for the giant. Baby Bliss took on the challenge and learned to ride this contraption with great skill and dexterity. He was sent to bicycle meets and parades across the United States, creating lots of attention for the American Bicycle Company and himself. Mr. Bliss was eventually sent to Europe and pedaled the streets of a distant land and entertained royalty. The American Bicycle Company did not prosper and, after their demise, Baby Bliss became a member of the Fat Man's ball team.

In January of 1912, Baby Bliss lived with his mother at 1208 East Clay Street in Bloomington (now known as Oakland Avenue). Mom was ensconced at Mennonite hospital at the time with a broken hip. Days went by and the neighbors realized that they had not seen hide nor hair of Leonard. Being good citizens, the neighbors contacted the police and the police entered the home. There they found poor Baby frozen solid, sitting in his special chair. It has been deduced that Mr. Bliss was asphyxiated. The gas cocks had been turned on, presumably by either his massive body simply walking across the kitchen floor or while trying to rebuild a fire in the kitchen cook stove.

As big in death as in life, Baby Bliss' casket measured seven feet four inches in length, 33 inches in width and 25 inches in depth. Ten strong pall bearers carried the coffin. His grave is marked with a medium - small stone on the right side in the first burial space next to the center drive. Mary, his ten year old sister, and his parents share the lot. Do not confuse Baby Bliss's grave with the larger Bliss stone to the north; that is his brother and sister-in-law.

Smith Grove Cemetery has veterans from many wars who served and defended our country and freedom. The graves are decorated with flags each Memorial Day by the Towanda American Legion. The information of the veterans was contributed by the Towanda American Legion:

Veteran of the War of 1812 - Abraham Jones, Sr.
Civil War - Jesse Kellow, George Peterson, George Taylor
World War 1 - John Crichton, James Forsyth, Harold Galvond, Lauren Galvond, Noel Hilts, Gaylord Hughes
World War 2 - Charles Brokaw, Lotus Michael, Jewell Mounce, Raymond Remschner, Clark White

Smith Grove Cemetery is supported by income and donations from families who are buried here. It is governed by a Board of Trustees. The Trustees for 2005 are John White, president, Susan Foster, secretary-treasurer, Georgene Bliss, James Brokaw, Maurice Jones, Royce Kraft, Timothy Kraft, Rose Remschner, and George Womack.

I hope that the next time you embark on a trip to Smith Grove Cemetery, or any other resting place of the people, you will take a few moments to discover the history that surrounds you and marvel at the stories the stones have to tell.


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