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West Frankfort area, Illinois

West Frankfort area community of Lithuanian miners is unique among such large communities in that it did not establish its own church, at least a long-lasting one, suggesting its heavily leftist leanings.

Still, Lithuanians were keen to lay their dead among co-nationals, so they established at least three Lithuanian cemeteries.

The largest among them is West Frankfort Lithuanian cemetery which is also the best kept one, having its own board. The most impressive sight there are lots of photos of the Lithuanians who are buried there: it seems West Frankfort used to have popular photographers even 100 years ago and most people would put the portraits on their gravestones. Most of the portraits survive well enough to be visible. There is a stone sign near the entrance signifying that it's a "Lithuanian cemetery founded in 1914". After the "Destination Lithuanian America 2018" team visited, the cemetery board has also installed a flagpole with Lithuanian and American flags as well as additional signs declaring the territory a Lithuanian cemetery.

Commemorative stone of the West Frankfort Lithuanian cemetery

Commemorative stone of the West Frankfort Lithuanian cemetery

The second-largest cemetery is located in Shakerag Rd. near Johnston City. It is referred to as Lithuanian-Masonic Shakerag Cemetery due to a unique arrangement where the same cemetery is shared by Lithuanian miners and non-Lithuanian Freemasons. The Freemason section is a little better kept and some Lithuanian gravestones are destroyed but others remain intact, laden with long Old Lithuanian inscriptions about the life histories of those buried there ("died in a mine explosion" and similar). The cemetery is hard to find as it is separated from the road by private property (which can be walked around, however, although the path is not immediately clear). It should not be mixed with another Masonic cemetery nearby that is easily accessible but has no Lithuanian graves. The Lithuanian section of the cemetery was named after the Grand Duke Kęstutis of Lithuania due to the organization that established the cemetery having had such a name.

Shakerag Masonic-Lithuanian cemetery (view towards the Lithuanian side)

Shakerag Masonic-Lithuanian cemetery (view towards the Lithuanian side)

The third Lithuanian cemetery is located in Ledford near Harrisburg. When discovered by the "Destination Lithuanian America 2018" team in 2018, this Ledford Lithuanian cemetery (also called "Old Catholic Cemetery" or misnamed "Old Hungarian Cemetery") barely looked like a cemetery at all: it was just a little-trodden path into the woods and in those woods, one was able to see numerous overgrown and, in many cases, vandalized Lithuanian graves dating to ~1910s. It took time to even see most of them (but the Harrisburg library has a book about everyone buried in the town if there were newspaper obituaries). The cemetery was long since unused and not mentioned in any sources. There are snakes and ticks in the area.

Ledford Lithuanian cemetery, overgrown with forest

Ledford Lithuanian cemetery, overgrown with forest (2018 image)

Vandalised grave at the Ledford Lithuanian cemetery

Vandalised grave at the Ledford Lithuanian cemetery (2018 image)

In fact, most of the locals at West Frankfort "Destination Lithuanian America 2018" team has met did not know the Ledford cemetery location at all, and none of them knew the Shakerag cemetery.

After the "Destination Lithuanian America" expedition work was published, however, Vilius Žalpys from Oregon and Lithuanian-American youth have organized a trip to clean the Ledford Lithuanian cemetery (expedition "Šaknys", 2021), removing the trees and righting some of the fallen monuments, while Lithuanian Scouts and Ateitininkai erected a new small cross. As such, the Ledford Lithuanian cemetery now looks like a cemetery once again.

Ledford Lithuanian Cemetery after the cleaning works

Ledford Lithuanian Cemetery after the cleaning works (2021 image)

Currently, the Lithuanian life of West Frankfort has largely dissipated. As Lithuanians faced discrimination in the beginning due to their unwillingness to join the union strikes, many Lithuanian families did not pass on their language and customs. In 2018, the only people who "Destination Lithuanian America" expedition discovered as speaking more Lithuanian than a couple of words were in their 90s. West Frankfort (and possibly other of the area's towns) had a Lithuanian Hall where the Lithuanian festivals, singing, and dancing used to take place (closed ~1983 as the immigrant generation passed away), however, the meager wooden building, now used as a storehouse, does not have anything to distinguish its Lithuanian history.

Lithuanian Hall of West Frankfort

Lithuanian Hall of West Frankfort (now closed)

There are also bits of information about Lithuanian churches that may have existed in the area. Different sources talk about either a Lithuanian church in Harrisburg, or Ledford, or both; some talk about Lithuanian parishes, others talk about a mission of East St. Louis parish. Yet other sources make it seem Lithuanian priests simply held Mass in non-Lithuanian churches. In any case, these religious communities long since disintegrated (likely ~1940s). If you know more (or may disprove anything what is written here) please write into the comments.

The map

All the Lithuanian locations, described in this article, are marked on this interactive map, made by the "Destination Lithuanian America" expedition (click the link):

Interactive map of West Frankfort area Lithuanian sites

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  1. Would you happen to know if there are any more Lithuanian cemeteries around this area? I was here last summer with a JAV Lietuviu jaunimo sajunga with a project called “Šaknys” to help restore these Lithuanian cemeteries. We got alot of work done and now we’re looking for another cemetery to work on for next summer. I’d appreciate a response back, we’re very passionate about this! We were in Ledford (where we had the most work to do) and in Johnston City where we still did alot but the biggest job was cleaning up all of the baby graves near the edge of the woods that were overgrown

    • Nice work with restoring the cemetery in Ledford, we visited in 2018 and then in 2021 (after the first year of restoration) and the difference was huge.

      Our map of all the Lithuanian-American cemeteries (clickable for images and descriptions) is available here:

      Southern Illinois has only these three Lithuanian cemeteries to our knowledge (West Frankfort, Johnson City, Ledford).

      There are lots of abandoned or semi-abandoned Lithuanian cemeteries in Pennsylvania (Coal Region) though – you may check the map (zoom in at the Coal Region). I think you would definitely find opportunities there.

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