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Cemetery residents come to life to tell Janesville’s story

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Stacy Vogel
October 19, 2008
— Famous Janesville residents buried in Oakhill Cemetery rose from their graves Saturday, just in time for Halloween.

But no one was spooked by these friendly ghosts. The historic figures—portrayed by Rock County Historical Society volunteers—told their stories to help visitors understand Janesville history.


Standing near stone monuments under trees ablaze in orange and yellow, the speakers proudly described their lives and times.


“I haven’t had folks here in so long, but you picked a day where the trees are beautiful and everything is beautiful,” said Francis Cornelia “Nellie” Tallman, played by Sherry Turner, as she greeted a group of visitors.


Dressed in a simple black blouse, black skirt and fringed shawl, Turner described Nellie’s life as a resident of the famed Tallman house. She described taking the train to visit friends in nearby cities, throwing lavish parties and helping the poor during her life from 1839 to 1924.


Besides Nellie Tallman, visitors met:


n Dr. Henry Palmer (1827-1895), who played a prominent role in Janesville’s early development.


n Carrie Jacobs Bond (1862-1946), a world-famous songwriter.


n Catherine Holmes Atwood (1820-1902), whose family was one of the first to settle in Janesville.


n Levi Alden (1815-1893), the first publisher of The Janesville Gazette.


n A. Hyatt Smith (1814-1892), Janesville’s first mayor.


Tour-goers learned interesting bits of trivia, such as Palmer’s nickname, “the fighting surgeon,” which he got when he rounded up 700 wounded men to hold a Pennsylvania hospital against Rebel forces during the Civil War.


They learned Hyatt Smith was so hated by some Janesville residents that they set fire to two of his businesses.


Maurice Montgomery, Janesville historian, conducted the first Oakhill Cemetery tours in the 1980s when cemetery tours were all the rage, he said.


“I was kind of thinking maybe if people knew more about the cemetery, there would be less vandalism and people would develop more respect for history,” he said.


The historical society brought the tour back this year and plans to make it an annual event.


Barbara Mara, 77, said the tour gave her a new appreciation for her hometown.


“This has really renewed, not only my interest, but also my knowledge,” she said.


She was glad to see several children on the tour and said more children should experience history this way.


“Kids, when they’re learning history, if they had more of this hands-on stuff, maybe they’d like it more,” she said.



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