In October 2024, Vintage Voices will present its twenty-third season of guided walking tours in the Alton Cemetery (sometimes referred to as the Alton City Cemetery). To date, Vintage Voices has shared 266 stories presented by 115 actors. The characters and themes are carefully selected every year by the Vintage Voices steering committee. But how does that process work? How does the committee find new decedents to portray year after year?
Vintage Voices committee members and Hayner Genealogy & Local History Library staff members keep ever-evolving lists of possible decedents. We look through published books that discuss Alton residents, such as Footprints and Echoes: From Historical Alton Area by Viola W. Voss (who is buried at Alton Cemetery), Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois, and Its People, 1812 to 1912 edited and compiled by W.T. Norton (also buried at Alton Cemetery), and 20th Century African American Leaders in Alton: Committee on Black Pioneers, Alton Museum of History and Art Exhibit Catalog. We discover interesting people in family scrapbooks, business publications, and books of veterans. We keep a file in the Genealogy & Local History Library with obituaries of interesting people we find while doing unrelated research. For example, when researching a local business or industry, we sometimes find fascinating information about the people who owned it or worked there. We even consult with current and previous sextons of the cemetery to help identify interesting people who have been buried in the cemetery and, in many cases, locate the graves themselves. Only about half of the people buried in the Alton Cemetery have gravestones, a sad but common occurrence in many old cemeteries. Sometimes, we rely on contextual information to find possible decedents. The Hayner Genealogy & Local History Library collection contains the original cemetery internment books. These books list data on when people died, cause of death, burial location, and even the undertaker and funeral home. Checking these books for burials made by African American funeral homes to find African Americans buried in the cemetery has helped us create a list of possible decedents that is more reflective of the Alton area’s community. We also have cemetery books that list burials by location, and researching the names of everyone buried in one lot can give us clues about maiden names and other familial information about women who would otherwise be lost.
Once auditions have been held and actors chosen, the Genealogy & Local History staff further researches the decedents and compiles packets of relevant information for the actors on the decedent they will portray. These packets contain census records, newspaper articles, photographs, World War One and World War Two draft cards, city directory entries, maps, death certificates, information about jobs, families, service and community organizations, and anything else we discover. Actors write their own scripts, and often come up with follow-up questions for the Genealogy & Local History staff. For instance, several years ago, an actor asked for information about the Stratford Hotel in the 1930s, when the decedent he was depicting would have worked there. We found newspaper articles and ads that described everything from the meals (in 1933, lunch was 50 cents, dinner was 65 cents, and Sunday dinner with chicken, steaks, and chops was 75 cents) to the dances (in 1938 the St. Patrick’s Young Men’s Club held its annual St. Patrick’s Day dance there) to the meetings (the Piasa Amateur Radio Club, the Alton-Wood River League of Women Voters, the Rotary Club, and so many more).
The Hayner Genealogy & Local History Library also serves as a repository for Vintage Voices ephemera, such as a complete set of the program booklets and many of the scripts written by actors over the years. All of these items are available to see in the library. IR 977.386 VIN
Proceeds from the Vintage Voices performances support the continuation of the event, upkeep of the Alton Cemetery, and various community organizations, including Hayner Library. Please come out next October to see our history come alive!