My boyhood was full of curiosity, imagination, and adventure. It was fueled by the obsession of my buddies and I to debunk the tall tales spun by our not so reputable peers from town.
Our last exploit, the abandoned Executioner’s House, was found hidden in plain view behind Ely’s trailer park. There in the cellar we located what appeared to be an electric chair and a rusty old axe—so the story must have been true!
The woods adjacent to Old Holland Cemetery was said to contain the home of an old man known as the “Grave Robber Hermit.” But investigating the old hermit was one tale we chose to pass on. Few things gave us the creeps more than spooky old people who prowled around graveyards. The thought of being gummed to death seemed a long and agonizing way to die.
We repeatedly searched for Al Capone’s Secret Hideout, but it apparently was so secret we never could find it.
This day’s mission was to get up close and personal with our local version of the Grand Canyon—the Thornton Stone Quarry. It was one of the oldest and largest limestone mining sites in the world. I’d seen it at a distance from my dad’s car, but never up close.
Our gateway to this adventure was the Illinois Central spur line that lie hidden in the ravine behind Washington Park’s thoroughbred race track. The rails cut through the Isaac Walton wetland, tunneled under the highway and brought us right up to the quarry.
We slithered under the fence and snuck up to the quarry edge. The panoramic view of layered rock was awesome. We made plans to bring rope on our next visit so we could scale down the steep sided walls to the quarry floor. Of course even dimwits like us knew we’d never do it, but planning it gave us a sense of bravado.
The thrill of adventure always seemed best when we were in forbidden places. We stayed there for some time volleying “Your Mamma” jokes and pretending to enjoy smoking the Marlboros we found on “Old Lady Nash’s” porch swing. We were oblivious to the developing thunderstorm approaching from the West.
A change in the wind direction and drop in temperature finally caught our attention. Turning to find a dark storm cloud against a menacing green sky had us thinking it best to head for safety.
Taking the tracks back was a long hike. The shortest route home would be through the cemetery, the stomping grounds of the “Grave Robber Hermit.”
With the pressure of the storm barreling down on us, we decided to take our chances on the shorter route and took off running. Unfortunately we were no match for the fast moving squall.
Remaining upright in the gusting winds was difficult. The trees chaotically waved their limbs in the air like worshipers at a pentecostal tent revival. Driving hail and debris pelted our faces as we darted over the burial sites. Our footsteps sunk into the graves as if the century old corpses were reaching up to pull us under.
We broke clear of the cemetery and entered Brown Derby Woods. Home was no more than a mile or so away when the storm finally relented. Stoping to catch our breath, we spotted him.
He looked just as we expected; long nasty hair and beard, dirty, wrinkly old clothes, and dark sunken eyes—more zombie than human. He was heading towards the cemetery, carrying a machete in one hand and a burlap bag in the other. We sat paralyzed watching him methodically working his way through the woods. He looked to be hunting, pausing from time to time to examine the woodland floor.
A tremor of fear ran through us as we watched him raise the heavy knife above his head and strike the ground. Rain water ran from the wide brim of his hat as he reached down to retrieve his victim—a mushroom. He was mushroom hunting.
We waited for him to disappear into the cemetery before jumping to our feet and running for home.
That evening I asked my dad about him. Dad laughed. He told me that my “grave robber” was the brother of the guy living down the road from us. “No one to be afraid of.” Nonetheless, he was creepy.
Today the Executioner’s House is gone, bought and moved to a different location, a Midas Muffler shop sits in its place. The race track’s grandstand burned to the ground in 1977, closing the track forever. The railroad spur line was torn out and the stone quarry expanded to the land north of the cemetery. What once was Brown Derby Woods is now just a hole in the ground.
And the Grave Robber Hermit, well he lives only in the fading memory of a few young boys; now old men themselves…hopefully we’ve inspired a few tales of our own.