(MCT) COWDEN — Clyde Wehrle is a serial memorialist.
In the past 10 years, the retired carpenter from Cowden has been the guiding force behind a project to put up a 30-foot-tall aluminum cross by a natural spring on a cousin’s land near Ramsey. It honors God and the memories of local families whose names are engraved on little granite plaques at the base.
Wehrle also has been busy on land near his family farm, nine miles southwest of Cowden. An 18-foot-tall aluminum cross on a rise there (the cross was salvaged from a church after remodeling) pays tribute to the Almighty and also serves to remember those who lived in what was the Valley School District. Wehrle spent a lot of class time in a one-room schoolhouse and recalls those days as some of the best.
He would mature into a passionate Christian who dedicated his hands to God’s work with the support of his wife, Ileene, and went on to build or help build 20 churches, one clinic and even a hospital power plant in 40 mission trips to Mexico, Haiti, Peru and Africa. Now 88, he isn’t running around quite as much as he used to but hasn’t lost that memorial zeal for creating something to remember.
All of which brings us back to his farm amid rolling hills near the Kaskaskia River. There’s yet another aluminum-sided cross erected here (no surprise) and some other memorials that are real eye-openers. They are attached to a group of rocks and boulders, weighing up to 5 tons, that mark the close-by sites of a series of earth mounds and a village built by the Hopewell Indians, similar but on a small scale to the huge mounds at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
But the Wehrle farm examples are much earlier than Cahokia. Wehrle’s grandson, Josh, who has become fascinated with Indian history and discovered the Indian village site with his father, Calvin, says the Illinois State Historical Society dug out there and determined the Hopewell settlement dates to 2200 BC.
It’s all detailed in a series of memorial plaques that also explain an ancient Indian burial ground on the land is overlaid with an old cemetery that became the last resting place for some of the first white settlers.
“My granddad has lived in this area his whole life and his father before him,” says Josh Wehrle, 40. “He wants people to know where the cemeteries are, where the Indians lived around there. He wants to make sure we don’t forget the past.”
This passion to mark and remember is probably something genetic in the Wehrle line. Clyde Wehrle’s parents, Fred and Effie, bought 600 acres and moved their family there in the 1920s and set about clearing the site for raising cattle. But when Fred discovered he had an Indian cemetery/white pioneer cemetery on his land, he chose not to simply graze over it and forget it.
“In 1935, my father moved a 10-ton rock with a four-horse team and erected it to mark the site,” recalls Clyde Wehrle. “My dad took the trouble because he knew it was important to remember.”
Clyde Wehrle’s memorial inscriptions describing it all now honor his parents, too, and place them in the historical context of land by the river that has sheltered, fed and given settlers a sense of place since the world of men was young.
Who knows how far into the coming millennia Clyde Wehrle’s own memorials will last and what future archaeologists, picking over the rich feast of knowledge he’s left them, will make of it all? And that feast isn’t static, either, with new courses being added all the time:
“Lucky: Thanks 4 wonderful adventure. I totally believe in you — DAD,” proclaims a message scratched into the side of one of Clyde Wehrle’s big boulders. He smiles and explains that “Dad” is his son Calvin and “Lucky” is a nickname for Calvin’s 5-year-old daughter, Blue.
“They were up here camping last week,” Clyde Wehrle says. “Must have had a good time.”
©2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)
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