Louisa Rebecca Oliver, according to legend was walking near the future site of Union Cemetery with friends. She wondered aloud “who will be the first person buried at the cemetery?” Two weeks later she was the first person buried on the cemetery grounds.
Union Cemetery, on the north side of Altamont, was started in 1872. Altamont at the time, a major train hub, needed a non-denominational burial ground for the town and surrounding areas. In previous years, locals buried loved ones in their backyards or in country cemeteries like Blue Point and Bethlehem. Many early settlers were buried along the Old National Trail, after dying of diseases or other tragedies common to pioneers. Fun fact: The current site of Southmore Heights subdivision was also used as a burial ground.
The earliest grave markings in the cemetery are two children from the Nether family dated 1858 and 1859. These children and other locals were reburied at Union.
Other notable burials from Altamont’s past include G.W. Gwin, a notable businessman and one of the founders of the Effingham County Fair’s precursor, the Altamont Agricultural Fair. Daniel Boyer, Altamont’s first mayor. The Ellis’s, the first barbers in Altamont, who were the only African Americans living in town during the 19th century, a time of intense racial strife. (They are the subjects of a recent documentary film).
The granite Veteran’s memorial was dedicated in 2004 to the numerous local residents that served in the military. Walking around the cemetery today, you can see the stones of veterans of all generations (dating back to the Mexican-American War). Some were killed in action.
To the north of Union Cemetery is the Catholic Cemetery, which was moved from a previous site in 1905.
An anecdote from the Altamont Centennial book states “Ben Heckenkemper, when he was 16 years old, helped move the old cemetery to its present location on Main Street in the year 1905. He relates that at the time rough boxes were made at the Heckenkemper cabinet shop and the caskets were placed in them and moved by farm wagons to the present cemetery by volunteer labor of the interested families.”
A walk through Union Cemetery today is a walk through Altamont’s past, whether it’s recent or distant, the sprawling acres are a prominent reminder of Altamont’s history.