History Makers celebrates nine people who preserve Rock County history

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Shelly Birkelo
Friday, April 14, 2017

JANESVILLE—Sherry Thurner popularizes history for people, making it fun and accessible.

The retired Janesville English teacher does that through her Stories & Stones Cemetery Tours four Saturday mornings each summer.

Besides leading the free hour-long tours, she also researches and writes her own scripts. She will offer four tours this year: at 10 a.m. May 13, June 10, July 8 and Aug. 12, at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1725 N. Washington St. Free parking is available.

This will be her fourth year leading the tours.

“It's an opportunity to share some of the things I'm learning—and still learning every day—about local history and its people,” Thurner said.

Thurner, 66, will receive the Scholar Award at the Rock County Historical Society's History Makers celebration Saturday, April 29.

The celebration also will honor eight other people who have contributed to Rock County's history. The 1940s USO-themed event will feature food, dancing to swing music, live and silent auctions, and a 50/50 raffle. Proceeds benefit the Frances Willard School internship program.

Thurner—a painter, avid reader, worldwide traveler and history buff—enjoys research. She transcribes information from burial books in the Janesville Room of Hedberg Library and enters the data in Find A Grave, an online database of cemetery records.

She also posts information to Growing Up in Janesville, a social media page, and writes a blog titled "Oak Hill Cemetery Walks."

“The names and dates are not interesting; the stories are. It amuses and interests me. Once you start it's kind of hard to stop,'' she said of her curiosity about grave sites and their history.

Mike Reuter, historical society executive director, said each award winner has contributed to Rock County history in a singular way.

“They're all important, and each one uses history distinctly in different ways,” he said.

Without their efforts, Reuter said, the community would lose the awareness of history's importance.

“They all collectively have touched numerous people to create a trickle-down, positive, reciprocal effect on the community at large,” he said.

Thurner said she was “shocked” when she learned of the award.

“I'm not associated directly with the historical society or anybody, but I'm pleased the historical society saw what I do on my own as a benefit to the community,” she said.

About eight years ago, Thurner transcribed and photographed Millard Cemetery—between Elkhorn and Delavan in Walworth County—where her family is buried.

Since then, she has researched and transcribed the graves of 10,000 people.

The Oak Hill Cemetery tours initially were designed to raise awareness about the restoration of the cemetery chapel, Thurner said.

“I just want to entertain people and give them a little information to make them feel more connected,” she said.

Her primary interest is researching original settlers—people born from 1790 up until the Civil War—"because they're all interesting,” Thurner said.

She is taking a methodical approach to this year's tours.

“This year, I'm going to take it section by section and work my way across the cemetery,” she said.

Her May program will focus on the section behind the historic cemetery chapel.

Previous years' tours have been based on themes, ranging from doctors to people who died in colorful ways to interesting monuments.

Thurner believes the tours are important.

“When people hear stories, it makes them feel more connected to Oak Hill (Cemetery), Janesville and the area because they understand a little bit more about the history and place.”

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