Created in 1857, Oakwood Cemetery is remarkably historic.
Its founder, William H. Randolph, a former sheriff and state legislator, was the leading Lincoln supporter in McDonough County. On two occasions in 1858, Lincoln stayed at the magnificent Randolph House Hotel, which had just been built, at the same time the hotel owner was creating the cemetery.
Several years later, in 1864, Randolph was murdered while serving as the county’s Provost Marshal, enforcing the controversial draft law. That was the most noted murder of the century in McDonough County, and his grave was widely revered.
The cemetery was laid out by surveyor Charles Gilchrist, who was later a Civil War colonel and brevet brigadier general.
Oakwood was a celebrated burial place for Civil War soldiers, back when Decoration Day in Macomb was a huge annual patriotic festival of remembrance. There are over 300 graves of men who served in that nation-redefining war.
Carter Van Vleck, the heroic colonel of the 78th Illinois Infantry, who died of a battlefield wound, wrote many letters during the war, which have been published in a recent book. There are also graves of soldiers who served in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, and more recent conflicts.
Among the sextons who managed Oakwood in the 19th century, the most noted is John Russell, also a Civil War veteran, who later managed Antietam National Battlefield.
With 14,000 burials, Oakwood is by far the largest cemetery in McDonough County. Among the many noted graves are those of early county organizers and Macomb founders James Clarke and James Campbell; several Underground Railroad conductors in the Allison and Blazer families; noted business leaders and community activists like C. V. Chandler and Mary Ewing; crusading humanitarians Rose Jolly and Josie Westfall; early bacteriologist Ruth Tunnicliff, who developed the first inoculation for measles; WIU presidents Alfred Bayliss, Walter Morgan, and Frank Beu; noted Leatherneck coaches Ray Hanson and Stix Morley—to name but a few.
In recent times, Oakwood Cemetery has been featured on the PBS television series “Illinois Stories,” and historian John Hallwas has discussed its history, cultural significance, and most notable graves in Here to Stay: Reflections on the Dead in a Small-Town Cemetery.