How many secrets do you know? Dark secrets, secrets with life-altering potential, secrets that might haunt a soul even after it’s been confined to a grave? In 1915, a writer named Edgar Lee Masters decided to ‘spill the beans,’ so to speak, on the secrets he knew, secrets involving affairs, illegitimate children, and other sinful deeds. He created a volume of poems based on real people he knew or had heard of, people who he veiled thinly in his work–and some not at all.
The volume, titled The Spoon River Anthology , was much reviled in the area of Lewistown, where Masters was from; so much so, that Masters own mother voted for the book to be banned by the town library. However, the anthology has also put Lewistown on the literary map of America for all time–and if you visit the Oak Hill Cemetery, you can trace the voices of Master’s anthology to where they are “sleeping on the hill.”
In his controversial Spoon River Anthology , Masters wrote about the lives of the people around him–the stories he heard about soldiers, heartbroken girls, and, of course, their secrets. Although he attempted to hide the identities of some of his characters, he ensured that others were easily identifiable. The anthology is a collection of more than 200 characters who speak in verse from the grave. Each character discusses his or her life and manner of death. As many of these real-life individuals made their home in Lewistown and nearby towns, they came to be buried at Lewistown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, which is, today, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Located on Illinois Route 97, the cemetery is a popular tourist attraction visited by throngs of high school and college students, each carrying their copies of The Spoon River Anthology . Visitors come to locate the graves of their favorite anthology characters like Ann Rutledge, who was the real-life sweetheart of Abraham Lincoln.
Some groups come to perform the poems live within the cemetery grounds. The oldest man buried in Oak Hill Cemetery was born in 1759, but the cemetery is still actively used for burials today. According to the cemetery, 53 of Master’s “characters” are buried at Oak Hill–or simply “the hill,” as Masters referred to it.
The cemetery has further claims to fame. Abraham Lincoln presented his “Return to the Fountain” speech there. There is a famous Civil War memorial located in the cemetery that’s made of sandstone quarried from the bottom of the Spoon River.
If you’re thinking of enjoying a cemetery field trip, fall is, naturally, the ideal time to do it. At this time of year, Oak Hill Cemetery is filled with autumnal hues. The harvest season brings the scent of burning leaves to the old graves. If you visit in the waning hours of the afternoon, bring a flashlight as many of the grave markers will be hidden by fallen leaves and creeping moss. Look for names like Margaret Wheadon, Judge Winters, Nathan Painter, and Caroline Hull whose voices are forever immortalized in the verses of The Spoon River Anthology .