If you love history and have a slight taste for the macabre, the Historic Springdale Cemetery Tours are for you. In fact, they’re for a lot of people. Now in their third year, the tours have proven to be very popular. “Every year, we’ve doubled our attendance,” said founder Brian “Fox” Ellis, artistic director for Prairie Folklore Theatre. “Last year, more than 2,000 people came—including several bus loads of tourists from as far away as Missouri and Ohio.”
This year, Ellis said the tour takes place in Springdale’s Walnut Grove and The Cove. “Imagine walking through a lush valley of ancient trees with a quietly gurgling creek. Within about 90 minutes, you’ll meet a dozen costumed characters. There’s a mix of original and traditional music, dynamic dialogues and puzzling mysteries, a healthy dose of history, and lots of humor.”
It would be hard to imagine a more perfect setting for the tours than Springdale Cemetery. “Springdale is one of the oldest and most glorious cemeteries in the Midwest,” Ellis said. “There’s sculpture worthy of the best museums in Europe, 300-year-old trees, and a gorgeous river view.”
According to Springdale Cemetery General Manager Pat Lewis, the cemetery is the footprint of Peoria. “It was founded in 1854 as a more adequate cemetery to serve the growing City of Peoria; many of the smaller graveyards along the river were moved to Springdale to accommodate the growth of the downtown. It was chartered in 1855 and grew to be the state’s largest and most beautiful. It holds the footprints of the pioneers of Peoria, and many of the names on the largest monuments are also the names of our streets, industries, schools, and parks. It’s often referred to as Peoria’s Central Park.”
Although Ellis initiated the idea, he said he’s had a lot of help along the way. “I couldn’t have done this without the help of Linda Aylward from the Peoria Public Library, who helps with the research for the characters. Barry Cloyd and Fran Moss of Prairie Folklore Theatre also have helped to recruit actors and plan each year. And, of course, the storytellers from the local storytelling guild provide most of the talent.”
He said attendees will make nine stops along a quarter-mile track. “But because we have married couples and a group of sisters, there are more than a dozen characters. These characters include the first female dentist in Peoria—who may or may not use anesthesia when she extracts your tooth. There’s a famous sheriff who arrested a notorious murderer in the mid-1800s using tactics you’d expect from CSI. We have characters from both the Klondike and California Gold Rush; guess which one struck it rich?”
Ellis said he and Aylward walk a new section of the cemetery every year looking for inspiration for the Historic Tours. “We’re looking for characters who were important players in history—not just local history, but players on the world’s stage. We also look for the best stories. The reference librarians help us to find obituaries, old newspaper articles, and the published works of these people. Ideally, we use the characters’ own words, journals, and letters to help tell the story.”
He said the group really emphasizes the entertainment value of the tours. “If it were merely history, folks wouldn’t come back in droves. But we’re living proof that history, when you focus on the story, is exciting, intriguing, fascinating, and even fun. We have a hoot, and so does our audience.”
Although the setting is a cemetery, Ellis said the event is definitely family oriented entertainment. “We like to say this is the kind of program a grandmother can bring her grandson to and they’ll both leave with something to talk about. We’ve already booked several school field trips and have a special morning for home-schoolers.”
He doesn’t anticipate running out of historical people to bring to life for future tours. “There are 77,000 people buried here, and we’re slowly making our way around this large cemetery. Next year, we’re planning to cover Soldier Hill and focus on the un-Civil War. We’ll present different points of view on the Civil War, including some of the black soldiers, nurses, Peoria’s Abolitionists, and a drummer boy.”
Ellis said his favorite part about organizing the tours is the history and research. “Every year, I learn about the fascinating and rich lives people lived and how folks in Peoria had an impact on world history. The challenge is in turning research notes into a performance piece that’s six to eight minutes long. Some of these characters could easily captivate an audience for a full hour; I know because my first year I portrayed Henry Detweiler and have turned this into a longer performance that I present on the Spirit of Peoria.”
In addition to the tours, the Prairie Folklore Theatre offers a special performance of River Ghost, a musical based on true ghost stories form the Illinois River, at 7:30 p.m., October 15, at Springdale.
Historic Springdale Cemetery Tours run from 4:30 to 7 p.m., October 7 and 14; and from noon to 5 p.m., October 8, 9, 15, and 16. Tours depart every 10 minutes. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for children; a family ticket costs $20. For more information or to reserve tickets, call 689-8000 or visit www.prairiefolkloretheatre.com. AA!