As we approach the 26th year of Tales Tombstones Tell, the annual cemetery walk, we remember Dr. Joseph and Mary McConnell who gave the land for Oakwood Cemetery, our oldest cemetery in town. This story of the McConnell’s was featured in last year’s 25th Anniversary of the event.
Joseph McConnell and his wife, Mary Thompson Fuller, came to this area from New York in the 1850s. In 1857 they platted an area of land, just northeast of downtown and named their section “Turner” after the railroad executive, John Bice Turner. The downtown area of town had been platted in 1855 as the Town of Junction, by Mr. Turner. The town plats would informally be called Turner Junction and in 1896 the community was renamed West Chicago. The McConnells were involved in the early formation of our community and donated the land for Oakwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which sits across from the cemetery. With the aid of recently digitized research materials, we have been able to learn more about their lives before they headed west to DuPage County.
Joseph and Mary both came from generations of families that migrated from New England west to the Elmira, New York area. Joseph came from a family of at least eight children, and seems to have been something of a favorite son. Probate testimony after his father died in 1850 revealed this quote: “Father said he had one steady son and that was Joseph that he prized highly.” That same record also revealed a tale of Joseph’s brothers squandering the father’s money-drinking, an out-of-wedlock child for which the grandfather wanted to assure care, accusation of theft, and the fact that in the end Joseph only received $20 from his father’s estate. His father regretted how he had treated Joseph, who by all accounts was the most deserving of his father’s inheritance.
Meanwhile, in a nearby county, Mary Thompson was one of 12 children of a prosperous farmer. She married, and was widowed at the age of 33, with no children. She evidently was clever with financial matters because she managed her land, obtaining a mortgage in her own name at one point, and paying it off in the limited time period, no small task for a woman of that era. Then, in 1853 she married Joseph McConnell and they soon left the area coming to DuPage County. In 1854 they purchased a large tract of land from a farmer who had decided to move on to Iowa-with Mary McConnell being the name on the deed. Married women had just recently been allowed to own land in their own name.
Together they proceeded to build a new life for themselves along with a new town. Mary was a nurturer, and though she never had any children, there is much evidence that she kept in close contact with her many siblings along with cousins and nieces and nephews. It is thought that she nurtured Joseph too as he blossomed in this new setting.
When Mary’s sister Nancy lost her oldest son at Andersonville Prison in the Civil War, and then her husband died, Mary invited her to come to Turner with her remaining son and live with her and Joseph. That son was James Thompson Hosford, buried in Oakwood Cemetery as well. The Allison-West family lived next door to the McConnells, Mary’s sister and nephew, and on November 7, 1877, her nephew James was united in marriage to Caroline West. Sadly five days after the wedding, Joseph McConnell past away. Mary lived 13 more years, making her home with James and Carrie. Their first child was named after her.
We believe that Joseph and Mary McConnell are buried in the Oakwood Cemetery, although they have no gravestones there. We know that Joseph and Mary planned this cemetery and purchased a plot. We know that a monument was requested, planned, and money set aside for it in their will. But we don’t know why that monument was never built on what we assume is their burial place. In Mary’s probate file are plans to combine the monument of the West family, next door in the cemetery as they were in life, with the monument to the McConnells, and to spend $800. James Hosford, Mary’s nephew, left a $1000 bond with the courts of DuPage County to promise that the monument would be erected for his aunt’s family and his wife’s family together. If it was not combined with the West family, then it was to be a $400 monument just for the McConnells. However, no monument was ever placed. Sadly, there are no markers to honor the family who gave so much to our town.
Please note: The City Museum will hold its 26th Tales Tombstones Tell at Oakwood Cemetery on Friday, October 9, 2015. Tours will begin at 6:30 p.m. and every 10 minutes thereafter, with the last tour starting at 7:45 p.m. Tours last approximately 45 minutes and no reservations are necessary. The stories told at selected tombstones are based on history and are appropriate for families. Visitors will enjoy an evening stroll, with lanterns and luminaries lighting the path through the community’s oldest cemetery, and learn about those who shaped the West Chicago we know today. Although the program is free, donations are appreciated.