The Daughters of the American Revolution -- made up of those who can trace their lineage to early Americans who contributed to the Revolutionary War effort -- once had the reputation of an over-the-hill social club, members of a local chapter admit.
"I think most people thought it was just a bunch of old ladies sitting around drinking tea and having cookies," said Jane Gregga, of Elk Grove Village, who has been a member of the Arlington Heights-based Eli Skinner chapter for 15 years. "But we really are a service organization."
Take their involvement earlier this month in a Stand Down event, where chapter members gave away 700 winter hats to homeless veterans. Many of the hats were handmade by the Daughters working on an assembly line of sewing machines during a recent meeting.
And three or four times a year they deliver carloads of cookies to veterans at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
But perhaps one of their biggest volunteer efforts in years is a current undertaking to place wreaths on the graves of all veterans and first responders in Elk Grove Cemetery, and an associated history project that will detail the life stories of all 300 or so people laid to rest in the historic cemetery.
It fits in well with the Daughters' stated goals: to encourage patriotism, preserve American history and promote the education of children.
"It's important that the memories of those that helped found our country and fight for our freedom are not forgotten," said Gregga, who is coordinating the project with chapter regent Mary Arvidson. "We want children to understand what freedom costs. To have an event like this at a cemetery with veterans from pretty much every war -- it's a great teaching opportunity."
Gregga suggested her local Daughters chapter -- which numbers 180 strong -- sponsor a local wreath-laying ceremony in conjunction with Wreaths Across America, which promotes similar events at cemeteries in all 50 states. This fall, she led an online campaign to collect donations for 50 some wreaths at $15 a piece.
What better place to host the ceremony than Elk Grove Cemetery, she thought, since it is the resting place of the local chapter's namesake, Eli Skinner, one of two Revolutionary War patriots buried there.
Skinner, who died in 1851 at the age of 90, enlisted in the Massachusetts militia at 14, and because of his young age, was given the task of playing the flutelike fife instrument as soldiers marched into battle. He didn't arrive in Elk Grove until the end of his life, settling in the area for its good farmland.
The other colonial-era veteran, Aaron Miner, was in the Connecticut militia, who died in 1849 at the age of 92.
He is the namesake of a local chapter of the Children of the American Revolution. Members of that group, with the Sons of the American Revolution and Elk Grove VFW Post 9284, will also be participating in the wreath-laying ceremony at noon Saturday, Dec. 14.
Local historians believe Skinner and Miner are the only two known Revolutionary War veterans buried in Cook County, which underscores the historical significance of their final resting place: a tiny cemetery of some 300 graves tucked in between a Nicor gas pipeline, Arlington Heights Road and the Jane Addams Tollway.
It's a history that has captured the attention of Arvidson, who -- as an outgrowth of the wreath-laying campaign -- decided to dig into online databases, library records and newspaper archives to find out as much as possible about all those buried there.
The graveyard, which dates to the 1830s, is a who's who of Elk Grove history -- with names like Busse and Cosman -- but little is known about many of the others buried there. Arvidson found obituaries for about 100 people but says she still has more work to do. She eventually hopes to give the Elk Grove Historical Society and the private association that maintains the cemetery a binder with a page about each person.
"The survival of that cemetery is a miracle in and of itself when you discover that little piece of land holds an incredible amount of history," she said.
Arvidson, a retired Navy master chief from Palatine, began scouring records to find how many of those buried served in the military and law enforcement, so the Daughters would know how many wreaths they needed.
Her search yielded about 50, including two unknown soldiers, who are unnamed. Arvidson believes they may be veterans of the Civil War or Spanish-American War.
They, like all the others, will receive special treatment during the Dec. 14 ceremony, when volunteers and any known descendants and relatives will mark the graves with the memorial evergreens.
"We'll say the name of person, and stop for a moment, so they are remembered," Arvidson said.
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