The Cemetery Detectives: Tim Ogle, Vern Malare, Tom Schwartztrauber, and Babe Papproth (Submitted Photo)
O’FALLON – The O’Fallon Historical Society is home to a small group of volunteers that are making an effort to find long lost cemeteries and fix tombstones in disrepair. The group calls themselves “Cemetery Detectives,” and they began a few years ago by visiting cemeteries on Wednesday mornings before their volunteer time at the historical society building. The detectives, who also refer to themselves as cousins, are Tim Ogle, Vern Malare, Tom Schwartztrauber, and Babe Papproth.
Schwartztrauber said they use plat maps to see where old cemeteries were, and showed how they were marked with crosses. The properties have changed hands numerous times since some of the 19th century plat maps, and many property owners aren’t aware that the cemeteries even exist. Some are in the middle of overgrown woods. Once they get to about where they think the cemetery is, Schwartztrauber uses copper dowsing rods to locate graves. The rods cross and they know they have found a grave.
When locating the Beedle Cemetery, which is in a heavily wooded area with chest high weeds, and where the group eventually found three graves, Papproth noted that she saw a deer stand, and that’s when Malare came up with the idea for the shirts that the detectives wear.
“We were fairly camouflaged, and we needed to be visible to hunters as we were walking through the woods. So we chose orange,” said Malare. The moniker “Cemetery Detectives” was chosen after members of the group completed the citizens police academy with O’Fallon Police Department, and they had it printed on the shirts, which are available for purchase at the historical society building. “Now we feel more confident when we go out, knowing we stand out while we’re finding these graves,” said Schwartztrauber.
To make the graves stand out, the group places red flags and sometimes caution tape. At what he calls the Levi-2 Piggott Cemetery, family of Captain James Piggott and of the Piggott Fort and Piggott Ferry fame, Schwartztrauber notes that it was cleared out over several trips during 2015.
“I made and erected wooden Crosses, planted 100s of Daffodil bulbs for Spring 2016, had a Levi-2 Piggott Cemetery Sign made and installed. Most importantly, I found a few of the living Levi-2 Piggott family members,” he stated.
The group wants to make family aware, when they can, when the cemeteries are found. When family isn’t found, the group keeps track of the cemetery and keeps it clean. Schwartztrauber tries to trace lineage as much as he can, and he has several familial ties to families in the O’Fallon area, an important factor for gaining access to the site.
“In Missouri, if you’re a descendant, you can visit your familial cemetery even if it’s on someone’s private property, it’s a guaranteed right. It’s not the case in Illinois. Descendants don’t have rights to their ancestors graves, and we’re working with lawmakers to help change that,” he notes.
Cemetery Detective and O’Fallon Historical Society Vice-President Tom Schwartztrauber poses with his copper dowsing rods next to a found grave. (Submitted Photo)
The detectives also conduct minor repairs to broken stones at cemeteries. Repairing the stones is what both Malare and Schwartztrauber call a learning process.
“I didn’t know how to do this stuff. I’ve watched videos and done searches online. We do what we can and fix it when we can,” says Schwartztrauber.
Using a mix of grout, the men then brace the stones with what they can, sometimes fallen tree branches, to help the grouting set. Several tombstones have been repaired at a cemetery at Rock Springs Park that the Cemetery Detectives visit and maintain.
“It’s hard but gratifying to see them repaired. We learn a little bit more with each one, and take that knowledge for the next repair,” Malare notes.
The group offers to help residents find their ancestors and trace their heritage.
“We hope people will reach out if they want to find their ancestors, and if they want help finding graves or repairing stones. We’re willing to do it, we want to help,” says Schwartzrauber. Malare echoed that statement, saying “This is the history of our lives. It’s important to find out who they are and what they did.”
For more information on the Cemetery Detectives, or to purchase a shirt to support their efforts, visit the O’Fallon Historical Society.