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Database Remembers Chicagoans Buried, Forgotten in Dunning Cemetery

By Heather Cherone | October 13, 2014 5:51am
  A new   database   lists the names of 8,000 Chicagoans who were buried in a Dunning cemetery where tens of thousands of the city's poorest and sickest residents were buried from the 1850s to the 1910s — and then forgotten.
Dunning Cemetery Database
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DUNNING — A new database lists the names of 8,000 Chicagoans who were buried in a Dunning cemetery where tens of thousands of the city's poorest and sickest residents were interred from the 1850s to the 1910s — and then forgotten.

Barry Fleig, 70, the former cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society, said he is pulling all-nighters combing through Cook County death records and coroner's reports looking for the names of people buried in the cemetery, which is now in the heart of Dunning.

“The dead can not speak for themselves," Fleig said. "These people were forgotten in life and I don’t want them to be forgotten in death as well.”

Heather Cherone says the process of ID's is painstaking work:

The searchable database is designed to create a lasting record of the people who were buried near Irving Park Road between Oak Park and Naragansett avenues, many of whom were homeless, poor, ill or considered insane, Fleig said. 

The vast majority of the records of who was buried at Dunning were destroyed in the 1960s when a storage room was flooded, forcing Fleig — who moved to Phoenix to escape the brutal Chicago weather a few years ago — to scroll through reel after reel of microfilm searching death certificates and coroner's reports for an indication that someone was buried at Dunning.

“You could fault me for being detail-oriented," Fleig said. "I don’t think anyone else would have the patience to do what I am doing."

Experts, including Fleig, believe 38,000 people were buried in Dunning by county officials in a time period spanning 70 years, including some victims of the Great Chicago Fire.

But when Fleig's database is complete, he expects it to have only 10,000 names in it — because relatively few records that have survived.

"It has been very rewarding," Fleig said of the project that he said has "consumed" five years of his life. "I’ve been doing the right thing."

Fleig said he is "very motivated" to finish the database — and the history of the forgotten cemetery — before his health worsens.

"I don’t want this information to languish in my banker's boxes," Fleig said. "My daughter wouldn’t know what to do with it."

Starting in the 1850s, poor and indigent Chicagoans were buried by the county on 20 acres near Berteau and Naragansett avenues near the county poor house. Another 6-acre portion opened in 1890 near Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue, and another 17,000 people were buried there.

The cemetery stopped accepting most new burials after the state of Illinois bought the 320-acre property in 1912 and built a mental institution.

The cemetery — now on the grounds of a mental institution — was "neglected and forgotten," Fleig said.

It wasn't until March 1989 when construction workers building what is now the Dunning Square shopping center found "the top half of a remarkably well-preserved 19th-century man, complete with a handlebar mustache and muttonchops," according to the Reader.

That led to the rediscovery of the cemetery — and ultimately the creation of the Read-Dunning Memorial Park to honor those who were buried there.

The memorial park is adjacent to 23 acres of wetlands and woodlands slowly being restored by park advocates to their natural state.

This month, work started on a $70.5 million facility near Oak Park Avenue and Irving Park Road in Dunning that will house 200 veterans who suffer from Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.

The area slated to become the veterans home was not part of the cemetery, Fleig said.

"I would consider that a safe area to build," Fleig said.

Fleig said he hopes his website — cookcountycemetery.com — will serve as a lasting record of what happened to the people who were buried by county officials in Dunning.

"I just want to get the word out," Fleig said. "This is part of the history of the Northwest Side and history of Chicago. These people shouldn’t be forgotten."

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