In Oakland Cemetery, there is a plot, peaceful and undisturbed, wide open and unmarked.
A hundred years ago, wooden crosses may have marked the spot, which sits behind the mausoleum, adjacent to rows of timeworn headstones. But today, there is nothing.
It’s the nothing that drives Woodstock’s Gail Sorensen.
“The story is alive,” Sorensen said. “It’s just been put away for awhile.”
The story is this: from 1894 to 1926, 48 infants and children were buried in adjoining graves in Oakland Cemetery near Jackson Street, the victims of influenza, measles and other childhood scourges.
The graves, although noted in cemetery records, were never formally marked. Now Sorensen and a small team of volunteers are working to change that.
“It’s our goal to put a marker on this, to tell the world that they are here,” Sorensen said.
The children were residents of what was then called the Chicago Industrial Home for Children, later known as the Woodstock Children’s Home. Founded by the Rev. Thomas B. Arnold, a Methodist minister, the Chicago Industrial Home was located near the northeast corner of Routes 47 and 120. It housed scores of children from throughout northern Illinois — many of them orphans, all of them impoverished — who were brought to Woodstock under the auspices of Arnold and other caretakers. The home was established at a time when care for orphans and homeless children was sparse and social programs were in their infancy.
Sorensen has been working for about two years to learn more about the home’s children and their final resting place. Combing through old cemetery documents, records tracked down by Hearthstone Communities, which owns the property where the home was once located, and other historical resources, she’s managed to find the names of 24 children who are buried in the plot at Oakland. The identities of the other 24 might be lost to history, she said.
Sorensen said the home likely was stretched for resources when it came to providing burials for children, particularly when epidemics hit — the deaths of several children in rapid succession seem to coincide with a deadly flu outbreak, for instance.
“The children’s home did the best that they could do at the time,” Sorensen said.
But now, spurred on by the idea that “these are our children, basically — Woodstock’s children,” Sorensen thinks more is owed to their memories. With the help of Nancy Irwin, president of the Oakland Cemetery board, and Pam Moorhouse, the board’s secretary, Sorensen is on a mission to raise about $3,000 to dedicate a memorial to the children at their gravesite.
Tony Zoia of Woodstock’s Zoia Monument Co. has offered to help by providing a stone for the memorial at cost.
“I was surprised at their findings. It wasn’t just one [child], there were 40-some,” Zoia said. “… I felt it was something we could go along with. If we could help make it possible, we wanted to help.”
With enough support, Sorensen hopes to have the memorial dedicated next spring.
“The world turned their backs on these children,” she said. “Now we need to make that right.”
To donate to the memorial at Oakland Cemetery, make checks payable to Oakland Cemetery and mail them to Home State Bank, Attn: Orphans Memorial, 124 S. Johnson St., Woodstock, IL 60098. Please put “Orphan Memorial” in the memo line.