1 of 3
La Salle News Tribune, Anthony Souffle, Associated Press
This photo taken Dec. 23, 2012, shows the five-foot tall gravestones that mark the graves of Jacob Wenner and his wife, Elizabeth, in Crane Cemetery in Dimmick Township, Ill. Some local residents and family members of those buried in the pioneer cemetery are trying to restore it but no one knows who legally owns it. The most likely scenario is that it still is owned by Dimmick Grade School, which would make the school district the only one in Illinois to own a cemetery.

PERU, Ill. — Tall grasses and prickly, shoulder-high vegetation combined with weather and time have quieted the history told by the remaining tombstones in the one-acre Crane Cemetery in Dimmick Township.

Buried there are pioneers who trekked from Pennsylvania by horse and wagon to help establish the farm community north of Peru. It's the final resting place of Scottish immigrants who sailed across the Atlantic for a piece of the American Dream. And men who fell in the Civil War, still unrecognized for their sacrifices.

Oddly, there are a few near-perfect monuments that are visible through the brush. But given the condition of the neighboring plots, some people fear it won't be long before these, too, join their counterparts in obscurity.

"I don't know how many years I have left, but if possible, I'd like to see it cleaned up and maintained," said Myrtle Van Dyke, 89, a Johnston, Iowa resident with family members buried there.

In August, Van Dyke and her cousin's daughters drove four hours to the cemetery. She hoped to show them where their third great-grandparents and other relatives are buried.

Upon arrival, they found the old cemetery along the Troy Grove Blacktop in shambles.

"I was very, very disappointed," Van Dyke said. "I've been there before and there were a lot of monuments up. There are military members there that are supposed to be recognized."

Van Dyke wrote a letter to Dimmick Township officials. She offered $500 to assist in the clean-up and future care of the cemetery as long as they promised continued upkeep.

But no one knows for certain who owns the cemetery, leaving not only its o1wnership, but its past and future a mystery.

Crane Cemetery's history begins with Jacob Wenner, who is described in the 1925 "A History of La Salle County" as an honored pioneer who "contributed his quota to the advancement of farm industry in Dimmick Township."

Wenner was born in Lebanon County, Pa., in 1791. He married Elizabeth Houtz and in 1848, purchased 420 acres of land in Dimmick Township to begin a farm.

That same year, on April 1, local resident Sophromia McLaughlin died and was buried in the most northeastern one-acre plot of land on the Wenner farm next to East Fifth Road, known locally as Troy Grove Blacktop.

McLaughlin's burial marks the otherwise undocumented beginning of Crane Cemetery, according to La Salle County Genealogy Guild cemetery records and county records.

Guild volunteer Jim Collins said the guild's documents state that on May 5, 1854, Wenner executed a deed making the one-acre cemetery the property of nearby school directors.

At that time there was a school across the road, which later consolidated with the one-room Aitken School about two miles north, Collins said. A small church also bordered the cemetery.

The genealogy guild's official record for Crane Cemetery is a photocopy of a page in its self-published quarterly magazine in 1984 called "Pastfinder." The article offers unattributed information on how the name of the cemetery has changed over the years.

". more logically, the proper name of the cemetery should be Wenner; undoubtedly, the fact that Cranes have lived on both sides of it for better than 50 years accounts for the use of the name," according to the Pastfinder document.

Additionally, Pastfinder stated the cemetery's ownership was outlined in a June 6, 1937, edition of the Daily Post-Tribune, which is now the NewsTribune.

Pastfinder's date was one month off. But indeed, on July 6, 1937, a Post-Tribune news story reported an unidentified woman appealed to Aitken School officials asking them to fix up Wenner Cemetery.

The news article stated then-county school superintendent W.R. Foster found the 1854 Wenner deed that gave the school ownership of the one-acre cemetery.

However, Foster was quoted saying the school had no funding to support it.

Lastly, the Wenner deed, according to the article, stated if the property ever ceased to be used for public use, the land ownership should revert back to the grantor or his heirs.

"Everything else would change, but the dirt was the name of the game back then," Collins said. "There must be a record of the Wenners giving the school the cemetery in the county recorder's office."

Inside a steel vault in the back of the county recorder's office in Ottawa are ceiling-high stacks of thick, white record books that hold every La Salle County property transaction record dating back to the county's creation in 1831.

Deed Record Book 38, page 435, on blue-colored, lined paper shows the legal description of the property transaction. Jacob Wenner sold the cemetery for $10 to the directors of School District No. 1, of Township 34 (Dimmick Township), Range 1 East on May 5, 1854. That also was the last time anyone paid property taxes on the acre of land.

The deed record also confirmed the stipulation that should the school cease to own the cemetery it was to revert back to the heirs.

All other transactions concerning the Wenner farm property purposefully exclude the cemetery from the legal description. The first of those takes place in January 1877, when the Wenners sold the property "subject to the right of a burying ground" on the northeast corner of the property.

It is noteworthy that the transaction in which the Crane family first purchased the property on Oct. 24, 1891 also excludes the cemetery.

What troubles county officials is that there are no property transaction records that indicate the cemetery ever left the school district or that confirm beyond the 1854 Wenner deed transaction that the school district owns it.

"It's rare that you can't find out who owns a piece of property; it just doesn't happen," said La Salle County Recorder Tom Lyons. "I thought there would be something in probate records but there's nothing. You'd have to somehow find board meeting minutes from those one-room school districts, which should have a record of what they did with the cemetery."

Such records exist in a dusty metal cabinet in the basement of La Salle County Regional Office of Education in the county's downtown Ottawa courthouse.

On July 3, 1953, the "Trustees of Schools of Township Thirty-Four R1E" approved to listing and selling all of its property prior to the creation of Dimmick Community Consolidated School District No. 175, according to trustees' meeting minutes.

The minutes include a copy of the "Notice of Sale" that lists the legal descriptions of all six school building properties the district was to sell before it "ends functions" in April 1954.

Crane Cemetery was not listed, nor could it be found anywhere else in the meeting minutes recorded for the school district dating back to its first meeting on Aug. 27, 1936.

Interestingly, the minutes also do not make a record of W.R. Foster's confirmation that the district owns the cemetery as reported in the 1937 Daily Post-Tribune article.

At some point after Dimmick 175 was formed in the 1950s, two typewritten copies of the Wenner's cemetery sale to the school district were created by Dimmick School Board Secretary Ralph Crane. The copies are not dated.

On one copy, Crane made a notation in the bottom margin: "Any way to get rid of this fine piece of property — maybe we should keep it, the only school district in Illinois to own a 'burying ground.'"

The other copy had scrawled on the upper right corner "cemetery owned by District No. 175." On the back was a note written by then Dimmick Superintendent and Principal Ken Pratt to ex-officio Secretary of the County Board of School Trustees Joe Mini.

"Joe: Guess we own a 'burying ground.'"

Crane, Pratt and Mini are deceased, which further clouds the issue of ownership. But current Dimmick school officials have done some research on the issue.

In October, Dimmick Grade School Superintendent Ryan Linnig said district officials found one record that mentioned the cemetery: board meeting minutes dated Oct. 18, 1979.

The meeting record stated the school board had discussed the cemetery's ownership and its legal counsel determined it was illegal for the district to own it. The record did not confirm whether the district was the rightful owner of the property.

"There was no follow up done after that meeting so apparently, no one is jumping through the hoops to claim it," Linnig said. "We haven't discussed it at length. My recommendation to our board would be that it's not in the district's best interest to hang on to it."

La Salle County Regional Superintendent Jim Carlson said he contacted Illinois State Board of Education officials three weeks ago, hoping to find a deed on file that would officially prove or disprove that Dimmick 175 owns the property.

If the school owns the property, Dimmick 175 would be the only school in Illinois to own a cemetery.

"We're trying to figure this out for Dimmick," Carlson said. "The state board will be inquiring about the uniqueness of this case. They've never heard of, as far as they've told me, of a school district ever owning a cemetery."

If ownership is proven, the cemetery does have one potential buyer.

Dimmick Township Supervisor Bill Warnell said he and other township leaders have talked about the possibility of purchasing the cemetery once the rightful owner is identified.

But Warnell said there are several problems beyond property ownership such as oversight and a general lack of funding, as well as equipment that would be needed to continue maintenance.

"We've been talking here and there but there've been many questions," he said. "Our issue is we don't even do the ditches in our township because we don't have the equipment. Property owners take care of their own ditches, so we couldn't even maintain it. And that's a problem we run into if we ever get over the wall of who owns it."

La Salle County Board member Matt McLaughlin (D-Peru) grew up in Dimmick Township. He said he drove by the cemetery almost daily in his youth, always believing it was a private family cemetery.

Now that he knows more about Crane Cemetery's history, McLaughlin said he is trying to organize an effort to raise donations and recruit local Boy Scouts and other volunteers to clean it up. The problem, he said, is getting permission from the rightful property owners who today remain unverified.

Many people like McLaughlin do not want to lose the memories of people such as Union Army Pvt. Duane M. Harris, 26, who fell while serving in the 104th Illinois Infantry Regiment during its pursuit of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg; or the 86 other documented men, women and children buried there.

Each marked and unmarked plot has a story that is slowly fading in time.

"It would be a shame to let it go," McLaughlin said.

Information from: News-Tribune, http://www.newstrib.com