So many eulogies end with the phrase “Rest well on your journey,” but for the residents of Van Meter Cemetery in Bradley, Illinois, that rest has been in vain for half a century.
In part, the Cemetery was defaced in the 1950s, bodies left in the ground, while a tennis court was erected above them.
A story that over time has run the stages of grief by countless people, but began as a story of arrogance, disgrace, and complete disrespect by some area locals.
Van Meter Cemetery was Kankakee County’s first organized burial ground. An old farm cemetery dedicated to some of the area’s earliest pioneer settlers in Kankakee County that now resides inside Blatt Park. The entombment ground is home to residents influential to the formation of the County, their families, children, some as young as nine days old, and American Veterans.
Today we have documents showing at least 65 souls are buried there, with potentially up to over 100 calling the Park home. Unfortunately, official records have been lost to the winds of time, in part due to poor record-keeping by the many farmers that previously owned the land.
Everyone calls it something different over the years, but the word “Cemetery” easily keeps the story alive. Since the 1800s, multiple names coinciding with the people owning or organizations associated with it have held the namesake of the location. Families named Goodwin, Lancaster, Richmond have all once owned the land, while United Brethren and Freemasons have had ties to burials conducted there.
During its peak in 1896, members of United Brethren Church noticed it was in need of repair and organized to maintain it. Many of them later became interned here themselves.
After going unkempt for years following the last burial in 1919, the site became marked for a civil improvement project around 1953. The renovations saw the once quiet wooded landscape defaced by workers. Gates housing the hallowed grounds were removed, trees torn up, tombstones broken, scattered to the wind. All the while, bodies lie in peace while a tennis court was slowly raised above bodies below.
By 1958, Van Meter Cemetery was visually, no more. In a quiet graveyard that once cost a dollar to dig a grave for a loved one, the dead would find them bludgeoned by tennis balls of equivalent value for over half a century.
In all, Van Meter was a prime space dedicated to resting residents from 1838 up until 1919. However, to date, nearly all of the tombstones at Van Meter Cemetery are missing.
The Residents of Van Meter
Kankakee County’s earliest residents call the Cemetery home. Some laid to rest at least 15 years before the County came to be.
Among them include Samuel Davis, one of the key players in the founding of Kankakee County and one of the first settlers of Bourbonnais, a town of now over 40,000 residents.
While the Davis story is a treasure to itself, his death was not. Davis found himself and his family poisoned after dealing with a rat problem around his house. The rats fell into his drinking well and ended up killing ten people, including four members of the Davis clan buried in Van Meter.
Emma Van Meter, who was just nine days old, resides here along with several other children. Kankakee County’s first Justice of the Peace, Joseph Van Meter, calls the grounds home, along with a former daughter of the Mayor of Kankakee, Mary H. Gamble.
Up to five Veterans call the Cemetery home, including Civil War Veterans Corporal John Gordon, William Gordon, Simon Downey, and John Divilbliss. John Gordon was killed after a fellow soldier’s gun was accidentally discharged, killing him. He was the oldest member of his unit at 45 years old. The death was only part of the news his widow Nancy received that day, as their son William was killed in a Confederate Guerrilla attack just one month prior.
Records suggest George Legg, a former owner of the farm and a veteran of the War of 1812, could be interned there as well. George has yet to be found among area burial grounds, however, his son is listed in Mount Grove Cemetery.
William Richmond, who died at the Red Cross Hospital in Kankakee during the pandemic in 1916, is buried on the site. His family is a former owner of the land.
The names are but a few of the history lost at the site. Pioneer families with names Davis, Brown, Divibiss, Edwards, Flint, Campbell, Gordon, Gamble, Hitchens, Keist, Kenworthy, Lancaster, Magruder, Tart, Vandecar, Vanmeter, VanVelck, Wells have been found to rest here.
Stories of Native Americans buried there have long been held among locals, though no definitive proof has been found to date.
The Investigation into Van Meter
Uncovering the history of Van Meter was no easy job.
For decades, investigators and journalists have been working to discover the lost history of this internment site.
It was the late Kankakee genealogist Dave King who brought a great deal of light to the project itself. In 2016, King explained the project to the Kankakee Valley Genealogical Society. From 1832 to 1881, the Cemetery changed hands eight times, finally landing in the possession of David Blatt, the Park’s namesake.
“(VanMeter) was a farm cemetery. It was a family plot,” King explained. “Whoever owned it sort of got the say to who got to be buried in it, to an extent.”
King first began researching his own French Canadian history in 1987, while investigating the final resting place of Samuel Davis, who was a driving force in the formation of Kankakee County and a founding settler of Bourbonnais, was buried under a tennis court.
Over the years, King learned 65 burials were documented at the site, with many more lost to time. With many fragments of tombstones scattered throughout the county over the years. Rumors of their whereabouts circulate even today from being dumped in the Kankakee River to being used as a walkway at someone’s home.
“There are still a few unidentified pieces that we may not ever know. That tells me that number is getting up there pushing 100. Knowing the approximate size of that cemetery, and its age and the fact that, you know how things get lost, there are over 100 people buried there.” King said. “If you toss in the unidentified, that gets you to 100.”
In Summer 1987, three tombstones were found at Bird Park in Kankakee during the construction of a boat ramp. One of them a four-sided marker with the name VanMeter. Today, they decorate the Courtyard at the Kankakee County Museum.
King hoped one day a monument would be erected to the site, boundaries of the cemetery would be clearly defined for visitors, and an annual cemetery walk would be held in Blatt Park. For all his work on the project, King never saw the Cemetery memorial itself come to fruition. The former co-owner of King Music in the Village was just one of five people who died in 2017 after contracting the West Nile Virus.
Today, King’s efforts have been recognized at the Memorial residing inside the park.
Following the removal of the Cemetery’s visual presence, in 1958, there was talk of a dedication marker being put up at the park. It quickly found itself pushed off any future agendas.
Nearly a century after its last resident was laid to rest in the Cemetery, the Village of Bradley began the efforts to remove tennis courts out of respect that had haunted the residents for nearly six decades and a small monument. By December 2015, it had been removed entirely.
It was an Eagle Scout Project completed in 2019 by Jacob Harris and Phillip Koerner that funded the Monument. Today their efforts are recognized at the site.
“Jacob was the first one that was involved. He was looking for an Eagle Scout project at the time and thought that would be a huge project that would have a lasting effect on the community,” Koerner explained. “We were both scouts with Troop 319 out of St. George. We both enjoy history as well and thought this was a great way to uncover some mostly unknown or forgotten history for the county.”
Before his passing, Harris, and Koerner discussed the project with the late Dave King helped shed light on their efforts. Upon completion, the project funded a new sidewalk, concrete pad, metal bench, stone monument, flagpole, and lighting for the site.
A century after the last resident laid to rest, a memorial letter dots the site that reads:
VANMETER CEMETERY MEMORIAL
THIS MEMORIAL IS IN MEMORY OF OVER
100 BRAVE. COURAGEOUS MEN WOMEN
AND CHILDREN THAT MADE THE
PERILOUS JOURNEY TO SETTLE HERE IN
KANKAKEE, IL. THESE INDIVIDUALS FOUGHT
TO PROTECT THEIR FAMILIES HOMES.
COUNTRY, AND OUR FREEDOM.
FOUR CIVIL WAR VETERANS ARE KNOWN
TO BE LAID TO REST HERE ALONG WITH
OTHERS WHO LAY IN UNMARKED GRAVES.
CIVIL WAR MARKERS
JOHN GORDON – WILLIAM K. GORDON
SIMON DOWNEY – JOHN M. DIVILBLISS
THIS MEMORIAL WAS INSPIRED BY
JACOB HARRIS TO MAKE SURE THESE PEOPLE
WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN AND ALSO TO
FULFILL THE DREAM OF AVE KING
EAGLE SCOUT PROJECT 2019
COMPLETED BY JACOB HARRIS
AND PHILLIP KOERDER