Springdale's tales from the crypt

Re-enactors bring history to life in cemetery tour
(Photos at the bottom)
Sunday, October 9, 2005


PEORIA - Ida Vans Sant offered her dentistry skills to anyone with a toothache Saturday.

It wasn't the fact that she used less-than-modern tools to drill cavities that made people nervous. Vans Sant has been dead for about 70 years.

Vans Sant is one of many historical Peoria figures brought back to life through the Historic Springdale Cemetery Tour presented by Prairie Folklore Theatre. The event resumes at noon today continues next weekend.

Kay Price plays the part of Peoria's first female dentist and showed off some of the old tools used to pull teeth in the late 1800s.

Because of the cemetery's vast area, tour groups were bused out to a starting location in the cemetery. The groups then began a walking tour of a not-so-ordinary theater performance.

As a portrayer of one of the cemetery's notable residents, "you're really talking to people, and it feels like a much more intimate dialogue, even though I do most of the talking, but they do respond. It really feels like an informal, 'Here's my life story,' " said Brian "Fox" Ellis, co-founder of Prairie Folklore Theatre and one of the event's actors.

With each act, the scenery changes and the characters change, because the tour group is literally walking from one story to another.

This is the third annual tour, and the historical figures are different from last year. People get a glimpse of the lives of historical Peoria figures such as Janice Hall, whose husband helped found the cemetery, and Alois Zotz, an immigrant from Austria who published a German-language newspaper in the 1800s.

"We work really hard at historical accuracy," Ellis said. "We get some support from the Peoria Historical Society, a lot of help from the Peoria Public Library. We dot our 'i's' and cross our 't's' to make sure we're telling the truth. These are all true stories."

Ellis plays Erastus Swift Willcox, an early director of the public library. Willcox was not only strict on timely book returns, but also on the correct spelling of his name.

"When the city of Peoria named a street after me, they misspelled it. And it took them 30 years to fix it," Ellis said in the character of Willcox.

Prairie Folklore Theatre uses the tour to showcase Peoria's history and to help raise money for Springdale's restoration. Half of the proceeds made from the tour will go to maintenance of the cemetery.

Though the tour is meant to show Peoria's history, sometimes the atmosphere gets a little spooky in the evening. Laurel Ellis, another portrayer, said it's a little creepy being in the cemetery when the day grows dimmer.

"My mom told us about this one ghost story, 'The Lady in White.' And the other day when we were here, we heard our names being called. And if the Lady in White calls your name, you'll die. No one was there," she said.

Luckily, Laurel Ellis survived that episode and was able to tell the story of Rudolphous Rouse, one of the first physicians in Peoria.

Sandy Walker, who came to the tour with her mother, Nancy, said they enjoyed the tour last year and decided to return this year.

"I think that this is a beautiful thing that we should utilize more here at the cemetery," Walker said. "It's so historical, and it's nice to see it coming back."