Ghostly Travels

Visiting ghosts in the local graveyard has been a popular activity for community historical and theatrical organizations for a few years now.  Many of us can’t resist the temptation to spend a bracing autumn morning or darkening fall evening midst the tombstones of our forebears.

The Adams County Historical Society held its Annual Cemetery Tour last Saturday.  I’ve served as researcher, script writer, tour guide–and ghost–for the Adams County tours for five or six years now.

headstone

Headstone of 19-year-old Lewis Knight, one of six men of Company E, 16th Wisconsin, who died at Shiloh in 1862. Strong's Prairie Cemetery, Adams County.

Our county has always had a small population spread over a large area, which means we have several dozen cemeteries located throughout a couple dozen towns.  Our modus operandi, therefore, is to load up a school bus full of ghost hunters, travel to two country cemeteries, meet five or six ghosts in each, then adjourn to a nearby country church whose members feed us a home cooked dinner that is worth the trip all by itself.

At the cemeteries, our tourists find ghosts poised at their graves, in period clothes, waiting to come to life and tell their stories.  Given the right story and the right ghost, they/we are transported to the past. The setting eases the journey. There is something about a graveyard that prompts reflection, opens us to past lives, our own and others.

Selecting ghostly storytellers can be a challenge.  As it is among the living, the population of our county among the dead is rather small.  Records are often absent. Memoirs few, and the editors of our weeklies did not pen lavish obituaries on everyone who passed, even in the era when such obits were standard newspaper fare.

So the first rule of selecting ghosts is that we actually have to know enough about a person to tell their story. No fiction, at least not deliberately, although this writer is sorely tempted not to let the facts impede the telling of a good story.

In part because records are available, but also because the sacrifice was so great, we visit with the ghost of one Civil War veteran each year.  In proportion to its population Wisconsin suffered more casualties in the Civil War than just about any other northern state. Evidence of that sacrifice is found in our cemeteries.

Of course, we visit the graves of the conventionally significant–the “firsters” who founded the towns, left their names on the map, acquired a measure of wealth, fame or infamy.

We also try to find the ghosts of  ordinary folks, or at least those generally perceived as ordinary, even though we know every grave in every cemetery marks a life unique unto itself.

So we find the 19th century farm “wife” remembered as the mother of six, eight, a dozen children, who invariably lost one or more in infancy. The tiny stones of the babies flank  her marker like children gathered round to hear her tell a pretty story–as perhaps she once did in life.

We also look for the long-lived. On our last tour, we visited the ghost of a woman born in 1899 who died in 2001. She, and we, were able to reflect on change over three centuries.

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Headstone of Alson Kent at the foot of the only oak tree in Strong's Prairie Cemetery.

Occasionally we have a touchy moment, when the descendant of a ghost appears and wants to be sure we have grandma’s or grandpa’s story straight. We do, usually.

We can’t talk about ghosts without mentioning at least one sort-of eerie experience. In 2008 we told the story of Alson Kent, a seventeen year old boy who died in a logging accident. A huge oak tree he was felling snapped unexpectedly, kicked back off the stump, and crushed the youngster before he could escape.  Coincidentally or not, Kent is buried at the foot of the only large oak in the Strong’s Prairie Cemetery. It matches the newspaper description of the tree that killed him.

See you on the next tour.

–Michael Goc

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