Angie Johnson grew up in a small town in central Illinois and works for a screen printing business in Champaign, Illinois. She has been a cemetery photographer for many years and started the Illinois Chapter for the Association of Gravestone Studies in 2012. She writes about local cemeteries for the Southern Piatt Record Herald and is co-writing a book with Joe Dyer called The Past Roads of Southern Piatt. Every June, she hosts statewide cemetery crawls. During the summer, she restores cemeteries and travels the state promoting cemetery restoration. She is a 2nd degree Reiki and is working on a master’s degree.
When did your passion for cemeteries begin, and how did you go from photographing cemeteries to restoring them?
Several years ago, I started submitting photos to Matt Hucke’s graveyards.com. He has one of the best cemetery websites in Illinois. On my travels, I am finding out there is nothing like Matt’s website in other states. I take off just to photograph cemeteries during the warmer months. In order for me to see anything new, I have to travel a least 3 counties out in all directions. When I plan a trip, I will spend hours mapping cemeteries and historical places. That way I can see where I want to hold my annual statewide cemetery crawls plus where I may want to restore in the future.
When I was photographing older pioneer cemeteries, the owners always had questions about the cemetery. What are their rights? Who can they contact to restore it? Is there any funding? In the beginning, I did not know those answers, so I started to contact people who had the answers. I got up one day and said to myself, “I want to do something more.” So I started watching the work of a cemetery preservationist from Monticello, John Heider. Him and his father-in-law restored the Moore Cemetery north of my hometown. It was very clear that this was what I wanted to do. In the past few years, I have taken all my training with the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency and extra time learning from John, who also teaches restoration classes at Parkland and Lake Land College in our area during the summer.
How many cemeteries have you visited, and what are some of your favorites?
As of today, I have photographed 1,329 cemeteries. Any cemetery is a great cemetery. I love the ones I really have to work to find or get to. I like to get the owners excited about those cemeteries again and tell their stories of them. Since I have my column, I can write about it to share with others. These cemeteries mean a lot to the ones who remember them.
I knew this question was going to be asked…lol…this is the hardest to answer for me. I have photographed in every county but 8 in the state. I am hoping this spring I will make the drive to the rest. So here we go Angie’s Top 10 (plus 1 for the road) favorite cemeteries!
- St. Sava Orthodox in Libertyville
- St. Simon in Colchester
- The Old Graveyard in Carmi
- Boon in Gorham
- Cahokia Mounds in Cahokia
- Miles/Eagle Cliff in Waterloo
- Mount Emblem in Elmhurst
- Galconda City in Golconda
- Waldheim in Chicago
- Greenwood in Decatur
- Albion City in Albion
Tell us a little about the Association of Gravestone Studies. How did you become involved with the organization and come to found the Illinois chapter?
The AGS is a national not-for-profit that is all about the awareness and studies of gravestones. Each state is supposed to have its own chapter, but not every state has a chapter yet. The word is spreading and more cemetery enthusiasts are getting involved. The chapter chairperson helps promote in their states by having Facebook pages, cemetery related speakers, and meetings in different parts of their state The 3rd week of every June, the national AGS holds a conference. It is a week long event which provides many different things. If you can not do a whole week you still have the option to pick what you would like to learn more of. This summer it is at Franklin College in Indiana. Here is the AGS website: www.gravestonestudies.org to watch for upcoming meetings and information.
Illinois did not have a chapter, so in the fall of 2012, I talked with Beth Santore (the Ohio Chapter chairperson) She explained the rules and guidelines. It wasn’t long and I had our chapter organized. We have some amazing cemetery enthusiasts here in Illinois. They are really good about sharing their travels and work. I have learned so much from them, and every time I am with then I learn more.
Take us through the process of cemetery restoration. How does someone become certified? How do you choose a cemetery to work on, and what is involved with repairing and re-setting old headstones? How much does it cost and who usually pays for the restoration?
The Illinois Historical Preservation Agency gives preservation classes through out the year. No one is certified they are just taught the methods the state uses to preserve the gravestones. There is a lot to learn when doing a restoration, especially the laws. It could take me all day to explain all the processes it takes from beginning to end for fixing the stones themselves. Each one is different, the break, the material, the size and the damage. They teach you in these classes what you need to know. Plus they are always willing to answer questions once you get out on your own. This is where you will find classes, contacts and our laws here in Illinois www.illinoishistory.gov.
We are helping in the cemeteries near us. Plus some of us restore cemeteries that are the more famous ones in our state, historical and paranormal. Being a former paranormal investigator, I have always liked the unknown. So why not fix haunted cemeteries, since many people travel to them more then others? I have already done preservation work in some of the most well-known. The Old Macomb Cemetery in Macomb, Greenwood Cemetery in Decatur, all of Peck Cemetery in Oakley Township, and this summer Hickory Hill and Lawler Cemeteries in Equality at the Old Slave House.
It depends on what kind of ownership the cemetery has in order to figure who will pay. I volunteer my time and so does every one else on my team. It takes time more than anything else. When you do any restoration it is always good to ask family members, local communities, town and county boards, legions, or maybe even companies who donate back to the community. Once you do a lot of restoration work, you can pretty much tell what it will take to do the work.
Are you concerned that vandals will ruin your work? What steps do you take to prevent further damage to the cemetery?
Honestly, what can you do? If someone wants to do it they will. Parents should start teaching their children at a young age. Take them to your family graves, and talk about the ones before you. Maybe clean their stones, put up flowers, and do holiday decorations. It gets them out there so they learn to respect them.
I am going to give you a very important piece of information also. Some of our cemeteries do not have paperwork. One of the townships I helped had a fire and lost all five of their cemeteries’ information. It is hard to restore a cemetery that has been vandalized. Once a stone has been moved and there is nothing showing where it goes. Then the graves identities are lost for good.
Please tell us about your latest project, the Old Slave House cemeteries near Equality, Illinois. Who is buried in those cemeteries, and how badly are they in need of repair? How did you come to be involved with the Old Slave House?
Hickory Hill and Lawler Cemeteries are side by side in Equality, Illinois. John Crenshaw and his family are buried in Hickory Hill. Then his son-in-law, General Michael Lawler and his family are in Lawler. There are around 35 stones total. The Crenshaw Cemetery is in the worse shape. The history of both families are amazing.
I knew my first visit I wanted to preserve them. The Old Slave House is the most famous and historical place in southern Illinois. Fixing these stones will be an honor. I have not heard anything about the Old Slave House re-opening. If they ever do, you can bet I will be going to see it. I am going down there this spring to be interviewed by the newspaper and local news channel before the restorations start. This means a lot to people from Southern Illinois.
What’s next for Angie Johnson? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I have a lot planned this year. Peck Cemetery will be completely done by beginning of June. We are fixing the stone of George Van Meter. He is buried in a field by himself in northern Piatt County. The end of June we will starting the 2 cemeteries at the Old Slave House Then we will start on Cross Cemetery near Cerro Gordo. We will also do the history and mapping of two Bourbon Township cemeteries for future restorations.
Every year I host the state wide cemetery crawl which is always the first full weekend in June. This year we will be in Central Illinois. All information and last years is on my website www.walkamongthedeadgirl.com. I am doing a lot of speaking events, teaching and interviews this year to promote everything. I just go with the flow of life!
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