Oak Hill Chapel,built in 1899
Recently restored by Friends of Oak Hill Chapel
Photo: Eric Panico of the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
A Closer Look
Friends of Oak Hill Chapel
Preserving Our History
Story by Teresa Nguyen
"I thought if people visited, learned stories about the men and women buried there, looked at interesting monuments and headstones, saw the efforts of dedicated local volunteers, they might be more invested and willing to support the historic property."
~ The Late Sherry Thurner
October Ghosts and Friends
It is Halloween and the temperature drops below freezing, bringing an early snowfall before we even get the chance to hand out candy to excited little witches, small, but impressive superheros and spooky, tiny ghosts on the doorstep!
Whether you believe in the idea of floating spirits or not, we can certainly believe in the good people of the Friends of Oak Hill Chapel, who banded together to raise funds for the chapel’s restoration. The purpose of this story is to show an appreciation for the ambition of leaders like Richard Snyder, the late Sherry Thurner and Kay Demrow who have shared their unique talents in these places of rest to benefit our Janesville area community!
Did you know that Oak Hill Cemetery was established in 1851? It is an area of 90 acres and contains approximately 24,000 graves! That's over a third of our city's current population and one can feel a little lost, or should we say bewildered, in this majestic cemetery, wandering its maze of tall oaks, winding lanes and rows of tombstones.
One summer in high school, my son worked for the City of Janesville, mowing the grounds of Oak Hill Cemetery. He had clear and specific instructions on how to mow, especially on how to avoid the corners of the tombstones! He and a good group of guys worked in all sorts of weather, taking shelter in the shed during the pouring rain, clearing downed branches and continually mowing and trimming weeds.
Photo of Oak Hill Cemetery by Sherry Thurner
These city workers are the keepers of this quiet place, beautifully maintaining those acres of lawns and stones for the visitors, for those who come to mourn their loved ones. Perhaps to some, it seems like just a job. However, this detailed maintenance is respectfully dedicated to keeping up this piece of land not only for the visitors, but to honor the local men and women of our community who have passed from this world. Here lie folks from the days of early settlement to today, who have contributed in their own unique ways to our great city.
Those Who Rest in Peace
So who rests there? What are their stories? Some were quite successful and famous, some lived modest and humble lives and many sacrificed for our country in military service.
Browsing through Oak Hill Cemetery's Find-A-Grave, one can learn a lot about the people who who came before us.
With a little inquiry, one can find many interesting stories, like one particular family that stood out.
Joseph Croft, born in 1814 in North Yorkshire, England, was described as a pioneer of Janesville. That line alone tells an amazing story. How brave to not only come to a new land across the vast sea, but then to have the courage to travel westward to what was then a very remote, unfamiliar territory. He settled in a new, little known community along the banks of the Rock River. Joseph worked as a contractor and builder here in Janesville before falling ill. He died in 1876 at age 62.
Joseph was married to Ann, also from England. According to the numbers, she had to have been a child bride. In 1842, they arrived in Rock County with two children. She would go on to bear seven more children! Ann died in 1884, also aged 62. A member of Trinity Episcopal Church, she was described as a virtuous Christian wife and mother, who's goodness endeared her "not only to her own family and friends, but to all who knew her". Ann is also buried at Oak Hill with her husband Joseph.
Their oldest son, James Croft, born in England in 1833, arrived in Janesville with his parents.
Tombstone of Janesville settlers,
Joseph and Ann Croft
James Croft ended up serving in the Civil War and was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
James died at age 80. His photo was provided to the Oak Hill site by Richard L. Smallwood-Roberts, who believes in the duty of genealogical research of Civil War veterans, and who also served in the U.S. Army.
Saving the Chapel
Oakhill Chapel was built in 1899. In 2013, the City took ownership of the chapel. Without funding, there were discussions of demolishing the building.
Stained glass artist, Richard Snyder, of 1Glass Impressions, created the wonderful Friends of Oak Hill Chapel group. The City promised to donate $60,000 if the friends raised $40,000. After much work, dedication and fundraising, they succeeded with a celebration of the opening in June of 2018!
Civil War Veteran, James Croft
With beautiful craftsmanship, Richard and friends poured countless volunteer hours into restoring the chapel and its gorgeous, colorful stained-glass windows.
Around 2013, the late Sherry Thurner contributed to the cause in a creative and meaningful way. She researched, wrote scripts, and created Oak Hill Cemetery Tours, designing routes and marking the stones with utility flags.
She began giving these Oak Hill Cemetery walks and the number of people showing up grew, eager for an educational, walk through time and stories from the graves.
In her blog, Sherry wrote, “I thought if people visited, learned stories about the men and women buried there, looked at interesting monuments and headstones, saw the efforts of dedicated local volunteers, they might be more invested and willing to support the historic property.”
She took no money for these walks. Her tips were donated to the volunteer groups for various expenses, including the stained-glass window repair. She truly had a big heart!
Stained Glass Artist, Richard Snyder with the newly installed Oak Hill Chapel windows.
Sherry was passionate about her volunteering and wrote, “I'm gradually getting a good education in local history, which helps me feel connected to the community. I'm meeting lots of interesting people. I'm getting some exercise!”
Sherry Thurner had accounted for nearly 15,000 entries of Oakhill Cemetery burial records!
There really are good people in our community who truly care about honoring those who lie in the beautiful grounds of our local cemeteries.
Preserving Cemetery Records
It is true dedication to our history when one is willing to kneel in the dirt, at the foot of dozens of graves, simply to read tombstones and record the information.
Sherry Thurner 1950-2019
One such devoted, local volunteer is Kay Demrow, Archivist and Treasurer of the Luther Valley Historical Society Kay said she has visited and read "at least fourteen", she pauses, “probably eighteen” cemeteries on her hands and knees recording all the details of tombstones.
Kay has become a local legend, dedicating her retirement to preserving the history of these gently rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, painstakingly recording cursive diary entries, cemetery records and old hand written documents into computer files. Now that is historical preservation at its finest!
Luther Valley Historical Society
Archivist and Treasurer
Kay's Rock County Historical Album
Doing Our Part
Honoring our ancestors goes beyond visiting a family grave. It involves honoring all who lie there, for our ancestors and all the others share a common bond - a mutual, life-dedication and love for this beautiful community.
May we always honor those who came before us, those who pioneered this land, who settled and built and labored with sweat, blood and tears to make our community what it is today.
Let us support those who continue the tireless work to keep these places of rest beautiful for the visitors. As this early, bone chilling snow reminds us that the season of giving is near, please consider donating to Friends of Oak Hill Chapel for continuing upkeep and to the Luther Valley Historical Society to help support Kay and friends in the wonderful work of preserving our local history.
Friends of Oak Hill Chapel Fund
c/o Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin
26 S. Jackson St.
Janesville, WI 53548
Luther Valley Historical Society
158 Depot St.
P.O. Box 253
Footville, WI 53537