“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
– Genesis 3:19
“Oh my name it means nothing, and my age it means less.
For the country I come from, is called the Midwest.”
– Bob Dylan, With God On Our Side
The little girl, just three years old was gone from her rural home. Missing. Her parents, started down the road which snakes along the crest of Williamsburg Hill looking for the child. They found her about halfway down the lane to the old cemetery , and relieved, the frantic parents scooped the little girl up and took her home.’
A week or so later, the family was in the car and passed the lane that leads to the cemetery. The girl piped up, “the people who live down there want me to come and stay with them.’
Knowing that the little girl knew nothing of burial customs, nor even what a graveyard was, the mother asked, “what people?”
The little girl looked confused, guessing that the mother knew all about their unusual neighbors, “the people in the ground!”
This story comes from noted researcher of all things creepy in the state of Illinois, Troy Taylor and his website www.prairieghosts.com. Troy has been at it a long time, and knows far more about the strange occurances in my home state than I ever will. I can steer people who’ve lived on Long Island their entire life to supposedly haunted and historic sites right under their noses, find the Starbucks in Lexington, Massachusetts without GPS, but when it comes to the supernatural within an hour drive of my home, I inevitably turn to Troy Taylor.
Williamsburg Hill, the highest point in Shelby County, Illinois is one such place. I’ve been in that neck of the woods several times over the past few years, and saw it out there, a few miles off Route 16, near Tower Hill, but paid little notice. Once you break city limits of countless small Illinois towns, history becomes faceless and without markers. Such is Williamsburg Hill. There are no signs, nor any markers that I know of, but once there was a town here.
Cold Spring was a region which took its name for the natural springs in the area. Along with the springs came forests, ideal for timber harvesting, good farmland and plenty of game. In short, an good place to put down roots. But roots were hard to plant deep in the 19th century frontier, as nature and fate has a way of ripping them back up again. Native Americans were common in the area, but if treated friendly could be counted on to leave you alone. In addition, you had to watch for bear, panthers, wolves and wildcat, which could not only be fatal to humans, but were known to wreak havoc on livestock.
Industry started with a mill, then came the stage line, and Williamsburg was born in the fall of 1839. An unidentified writer described the town in the late 1800’s, “The village, though not one of the oldest in the county, has a rather ancient and antiquated appearance. It is also beautifully situated. Orville Robertson carries on a general store here, and is postmaster. Dr. Thomas J. Fritts administers to the sick in this locality J. W. Torbutt is the blacksmith of the village, and J. P. Dunaway is a carpenter and builder. The Methodist denomination and the Masonic lodge have built here a commodious two story building. The lower story is used for church purposes, and the second story as a Masonic hall. The Methodist Church, known as the Ridge Camp ground, was one of the early church edifices erected in the township. Camp meeting was held here for many years in the early times. Here frequently officiated the venerable Peter Cartwright, the pioneer of Methodism in Illinois.”
I’m sure those living in Williamsburg in the 1870’s thought their roots in the community were deep. But they didn’t see how fickle fate could be. When they laid the tracks for the railroad, they didn’t go through Williamsburg, and in 1881 the stage line was discontinued and the town began to choke and die. By the turn of the 20th century, Williamsburg was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. Even the church was taken down and moved to nearby Lakewood, within thirty years of the history previously quoted. The stagecoach station was the last to go, in about 1960, where it had stood as though waiting for the coaches to come back, and with it, life to the dead town.
Williamsburg, IL is about a three hour drive from my front door, and to give you an idea of what happens when the interstate passes you by, along the route you get a 3G signal on an ATT phone for about 15 minutes.
The strange occurances of the supernatural and ghostly on Williamsburg Hill are well accounted for on the internet, both on prairieghosts.com, as well as several other sites. You have most of the paranormal standards: Mysterious lights, strange shadows, aliens and even Bigfoot has made a few appearances. Legend has it that the early settlers were warned against settling on the hill by the native Americans, who refused to set foot on its slopes due to evil spirits that dwelled there.
My guess is that when folk tales grow up around a place in such profusion, there’s likely a bit of backbone to the story.
Williamsburg Hill is an anomaly, rising over 800 feet in a starlingly flat plain. At its base, the cornfields turn to forest and the narrow road winds its way up to the top. The graveyard is clearly marked, and after turning down the lane and passing the microwave tower, it’s a short drive to Ridge Cemetery itself. Some think the tower might be the source of the hauntings on Williamsburg Hill, charging the atmosphere and somehow keeping the dead riled up. I kind of doubt that one, but could see some possibility as an explanation for the strange lights.
I had a bit of trouble with the gate, finding it seemingly locked, but the padlock not clicked closed. I closed the gate behind me, hung the padlock from the frame and wandered the grounds.
Ridge Cemetery is a beautiful place, even without the graveyard. Surrounded by the dense forest which must be somewhat similar to what the earliest settlers encounted, it’s topped by a few ancient, gnarled trees, their canopies casting shade and shadows on the stones below. Most of the stones are old; weathered carvings, inscriptions barely legible when you could read them at all, and many laying down. Vandalism has been a problem here, as well as the ever present satanists and cultists who always seem to frequent spots like this. In the midwest, once a location gets a spooky story or two, black robed figures chanting and cattle mutilation are sure to follow. If the stories are to be believed, we are surrounded by secret, macabre societies which include our neighbors and closest friends. It’s been that way in this country dating back at least to 1690 and the Salem witch hunts. Paranoia and suspicion is are in our genes.
Usually, no matter where you are in the United States, unless you really get into the back country, if you stop and listen, you’re going to hear traffic. Planes, cars and trucks on the interstate – it’s almost impossible to find true quiet.
The only sounds on Williamsburg Hill in Ridge Cemetery were the leaves rustling in the breeze, and the songs of birds. And that’s when it struck me. I walking among the graves of the dead, whose town was dead as well. All that remained of Williamsburg, all that remained of its people are these stones. Timber, glass and steels can be burnt, buried and hauled away, and inevitably will in the midwest to make way for farmland. Where you lived your life will eventually become dust and ashes, just as the people who lived there. Williamsburg is truly dead, its buildings and people now dust to dust and ashes to ashes, and all that’s left is the memory of the people, captured in these stones.
If you ask me, that’s a much better explanation for the supernatural on Williamsburg Hill. Maybe the Indian stories were true, and the hill is a place of spirits. And perhaps, with no place else to haunt, the ghosts of Williamsburg go back to the only place left which they know, the graveyard.
I’ve never been a believer that by nature a cemetery is haunted. Creepy? Absolutely. But it’s not the place where people died, and not the place where people suffer most. The only reason I can think of for a cemetery to be haunted is that this is the place where people said goodbye to their loved ones.
And Troy gives us a tantalizing story along those lines, of a lady who once, as a girl, witnessed what appeared to be a 19th century funeral in progress in the graveyard, which when she turned to look again, had disappeared.
I had the unnerving feeling of being watched in Ridge Cemetery. More than once I turned to look as I was sure I felt eyes burning into the back of me, only to find I was alone. I took to looking out of the corner of my eye, certain someone would be standing there if I got the angle just right. Not someone from this time, but someone all the same. And finally I started back to my vehicle, feeling vaguely menaced with the graveyard to my back.Maybe time gets lost in a place like Williamsburg. With no buildings, no signs and no people to mark the spot, perhaps the veil of time is thinner here. Perhaps that explains the ghastly old man who runs screaming from the forest towards you, only to disappear before your eyes. Time needs signposts, and the only signposts for Williamsburg, Illinois are these stones.
When I reached the gate and found the padlock once again positioned through the clasp, I panicked. It wasn’t locked, but I was sure, as I wrote in the beginning, that I had just hooked the lock over the frame of the gate. So the mind plays tricks on us, doesn’t it? It was the second eerie and unexplainable experience involving locks and myself over the last six months though, so it left me something to wonder on the long road home. And might explain why I never lock my door.
Gothic Travel Ratings
Williamsburg Hill, Illinois and Ridge Cemetery are places best explored with an open mind, and with the imagination. Williamsburg is nothing but farmland and gravel roads, and Ridge Cemetery is a stereotypical country graveyard, with a few perks tossed in. Would I drive three hours just to check the place out? Well yeah, I likely would, as I’m peculiar that way. Would I recommend others do the same? If the idea of creepy and macabre solitude sounds like your cup of tea, then sure. Otherwise, if you find your self slicing through the Illinois heartland on I70 and see the signs that you’ve entered Shelby county, grab the GPS and go take a look. It’s one of the rare places which feels creepy in the daytime, though undoubtedly it could be insane with possibilities at night. Including incareration, as the sheriff’s patrol pops in regularly. And I’m sure they have some tales to tell as well. Strikes me as a lovely spot for a picnic.