Party Faithful From Cradle to Grave

A flag featuring the Republican elephant flies proudly over an old cemetery outside this central Illinois town every Memorial Day, just under the Stars and Stripes.

A quarter-mile down the road, long-dead Democrats are buried in their own private plot.

While party affiliation no longer determines final resting place in tiny Carlock, the two graveyards are a stark reminder of a time when politics once divided townspeople in life and in death.

"We've got cemeteries filled with coal miners, farmers or people from the same church -- all kinds of themes like that, but this situation is really unusual," says David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "I don't know that you'll find something like these two anywhere else, at least not in Illinois."

The eternally partisan politics were unearthed again recently when Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes designated the run-down "Democratic Cemetery" for a facelift along with a handful of others as part of Cemetery Cleanup Month.

The cradle-to-grave antagonism dates to the 1850s, when politics was splitting the country apart. The Democrats were the established party, but the Republicans, a new offshoot of the Whig Party, were gaining fast with an aggressive anti-slavery platform in a nation headed for civil war.

Loyal Democrat Abraham Carlock, the local landowner for whom the town was named, routinely put up travelers in his home -- but not if they claimed allegiance to another party.

The lone exception, according to local legend: circuit-riding attorney Abraham Lincoln. Carlock overlooked the future president's Whig and then GOP affiliations because he had the endorsement of Adlai E. Stevenson of nearby Bloomington, the area's most prominent Democrat.

From no room at the inn, the next logical step was no room in the ground. Carlock established a cemetery for Democratic faithful only in 1850. His own tombstone hammered home the point: "Here Sleeps The Old Democrat."

"It's almost impossible to believe today," says Paige Proctor, who, with his wife Charlene, researched the town's history for its sesquicentennial. "Abe Carlock didn't die until 1884, but he didn't allow any Republicans to be buried there for the 30 years before his death and the tradition was carried on for another 30 years or so after he was gone."

Carlock's local political rival, Phillip Benson, stepped forward to open a competing graveyard in 1862 just as he had given refuge to the turned-away travelers.

Today, Democrats and Republicans routinely get buried in each other's cemetery. But it is the Democratic one that had fallen into neglect until Hynes, a staunch Democrat whose office issues private cemetery licenses and regulates related trust funds, singled it out for a cleanup by him and 20 volunteers.

"They probably wear white gloves when they maintain the one up the road," he quipped, nodding toward the Republican Cemetery.

"We're out here sweating away just making sure the Democrats get the respect they deserve."