A humble pioneer cemetery that became renowned as a site of paranormal activity, Bachelors Grove Cemetery is a unique remnant of history that is hidden in the depths of a Cook County Forest Preserve.

Thousands of small cemeteries holding the remains of early settlers dot the American landscape, and thanks to a new traveling exhibit, “Lost in the Woods: The Real—and Unreal—Story of Bachelors Grove,” efforts are being made to research and reveal the true history of this one-acre plot in the southwest part of Cook County.

The exhibit, made up of historic and contemporary photos, documents and artifacts, was developed by Ursula Bielski and Karl Kochmann and premiered last month at the Krueger Funeral Home in Blue Island. The Blue Island Public Library co-sponsored the event.

Located on 143rd Street east of Ridgeland Avenue, across from Rubio Woods Forest Preserve in Midlothian, Bachelors Grove Cemetery is reached only by foot, down a long, broken cement trail that was once part of the Midlothian Turnpike. This section of the road was closed to traffic in the 1960s, isolating the cemetery in the surrounding woods and making it invisible from the street.

An old quarry pond borders the cemetery, and during the winter months when the trees are bare, a glimpse of the graves can be caught in the distance looking over the pond from the bridge that spans an adjacent creek.

According to a document authored by Brad L. Bettenhausen, president of the Tinley Park Historical Society, settlement of this area about 20 miles south of Chicago began in the late 1820s. Timberlands, which supplied materials for construction, and grassland prairies, which were easier to cultivate into farmland, made up the surrounding terrain.

The origin of the name for the settlement is in question. One theory is that it comes from the Batchelder Family that lived in the area; another story has it originating from a group of four single men who settled there. Numerous variations on the spelling of the name of the grove and the cemetery have been encountered, including the ones mentioned as well as Batchelor, Berzel, Petzel, Bachlor and Batchel.

Bettenhausen reports that the first legal record of the cemetery occurred in 1864, when the privately owned property transferred ownership and one acre of the land was set aside for use as a graveyard. But the cemetery was in existence prior to then, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in south Cook County. One historic manuscript lists the first burial as occurring in 1838; another says 1844. Eventually the land surrounding the cemetery became property of Cook County, and after obtaining title through condemnation procedures, the county assumed responsibility for the cemetery around 1976. Today it is under control of the Real Estate Management Office of Cook County and maintenance is shared with the Cook County Forest Preserve.

At one time, families picnicked in the cemetery’s peaceful park-like setting while visiting their loved ones buried there, and they fished and swam in the quarry pond. But in the 1950s, teenagers started using Bachelors Grove Cemetery as a lovers lane and clandestine site for drinking parties. Post-World War II suburban growth and affordable automobiles had made the cemetery accessible. Cruising around in the family car on a Saturday evening, with imaginations fueled by B-grade horror movies and TV shows like “The Twilight Zone,” it was adventurous to dare enter the cemetery.

It was around the time that the cemetery was closed to traffic that the first stories of hauntings started to be told—ghost lights, vanishing houses, “the claw,” etc. Truth be told, these stories were being attributed to a number of sites in the area. It was fun, no disrespect was intended by most visitors, just teenagers out with the family car looking for a thrill.

But at Bachelors Grove, a sinister element entered the picture– vandalism, desecration of graves and theft of tombstones all started escalating. There were rumors of satanic activity. Coupled with poor upkeep and security, the cemetery became a desolate wasteland.

Although some tombstones were recovered and are at the Tinley Park Historical Society, it is believed that others wound up at the bottom of the quarry pond, now stagnant and weed-choked.

Periodically, cleanup and restoration attempts were made, but the damage that has been inflicted on the place can never be entirely corrected.

For more than five decades, the reputation of the cemetery as a haunted spot continued to grow, and it has become a popular place for “ghost hunters” to visit. The cemetery has quite a cult following, as evidenced by the many Web sites and blogs that can be found through an Internet search.

Bielski first learned of the cemetery in the 1980s when, as a history major at Benedictine University, she accompanied a psychology-student friend doing parapsychology research at the site. Bielski went on to become the owner/operator of Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tours and author of a series of books on Chicago ghost stories. About 10 years ago, she brought a tour group to Bachelors Grove and was asked by forest preserve staff to leave, which she did so willingly.

It was not until 2012 that she started returning there and met Kochmann, a native of Burbank and avid photographer. He became interested in the cemetery earlier in 2012, frequently visiting and taking photographs, some of which are included in the exhibit. Mutual interest in the history of the cemetery led to collaboration in locating artifacts and documents, establishing Facebook pages and planning a Web site. The idea of the exhibit grew out of these efforts.

“The real history of Bachelors Grove has become completely overshadowed by the ghost stories,” Bielski said. “Our goal with the exhibit is not to take away the mystery of the place; we believe there is something very special about Bachelors Grove, something mysterious and spiritual. But we want to acquaint people with the real families who lived there and are buried there.”

Bielski said that for decades the story has been told of a ghost house appearing where there was never a house, when actually there was an entire settlement there with dozens of houses. The exhibit includes maps of these early homesteaders, as well as pictures of the homes and other information on the early settlers.

Other historic documents include plats of the cemetery probably developed in the 1870s that show how many of the burial lots had been sold. Housewares and other debris, including a gun, found nearby by collectors through the years are included in the exhibit, although it should be noted that the provenance of these materials—the documented history of their ownership, their age, and when, why and how they wound up where they were found—is unverified. Many of the materials and pictures were gathered through the Facebook pages, by word of mouth and by talking to other people visiting the cemetery. Curiously, the earliest pictures of the cemetery that can be located date back only to the 1970s.

Bielski, who has presented programs for the Blue Island Public Library, mentioned the exhibit to Dan Carroll, librarian and program planner for the library. Carroll canvassed the area to find an interested place with enough room to house the exhibit.

The historic Krueger Funeral Home, 13050 S. Greenwood Ave., in Blue Island, was the perfect venue for the exhibit premiere. Indeed, the last burial in Bachelors Grove Cemetery, the cremated remains of Blue Island resident Robert E. Shields, took place from this funeral home in 1989.

Clay Krueger, the fifth generation to run this 140-year old family-owned business, handled the burial. He remembers his visit to the cemetery ahead of time to check out the burial site.

Although the cemetery was badly deteriorated by that time, Krueger could envision its past charm.

“It was a crisp day in November, with the sun filtering through the trees,” he said. “It was quiet and serene—you could tell that at one time it probably had been a really nice place to visit your kin who were buried there.”

Looking through the funeral home’s burial records to help families with genealogical research, Krueger mentioned that he comes across burials that his grandfather Robert Krueger, Jr., did at Bachelors Grove in the 1920s to 1940s.

As would be expected, the exhibit also focuses on the paranormal happenings at the cemetery. A guest speaker at the exhibit premier was Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Ghost Research Society, headquartered in Oak Lawn. As a paranormal researcher for almost 40 years, Kaczmarek has been involved in a number of investigations, and he has authored, edited and contributed to numerous publications.

Kaczmarek relayed the history of the photograph of “the Madonna of Bachelors Grove,” which easily makes the top-ten list of ghost pictures of all time. In 1991, Kaczmarek visited the cemetery with a group of researchers including Jude Huff-Felz, who snapped a shot of an area where some of the group had detected unusual activity with the equipment they were using. Later when the 35-mm, black-and-white infrared film was developed, in the background of the picture was noticed a young woman sitting on a tombstone with parts of her lower and upper body being somewhat semi-transparent. The dress she is wearing is also out of date. To this day, the photo has never been debunked—that is, explained in a logical way or proven to be falsified.

So just why is Bachelors Grove so haunted and so picked on? One factor could be the isolation of the place, but there are a number of small cemeteries out in the southwest woods that have not met this same fate. They all have their hauntings but have never been bothered to the extent that Bachelors Grove has. Could it be the land itself?

The Midlothian Turnpike grew out of a Native-American trail, and paranormal occurrences are often associated with such spots; but there was a strong Native-American presence throughout the entire area. There is talk of the area housing a “portal” or doorway to another realm that allows paranormal phenomena to enter the physical world. Or could the desecration and satanic rituals have stirred up paranormal activity? There is no ready answer.

“You can’t tell where one thing begins and another ends, what is cause and what is effect,” said Bielski.

She said there are a lot of dark stories associated with Bachelors Grove, real murders and accidents and family tragedies, as well as long-standing legends that research may show are rooted in history. Bielski said that, unfortunately, these stories become “a magnet for people to come there, especially people up to no good.”

Kochmann is a strong advocate of discovering the true history of the place in order to help answer some of these questions.

“You can’t investigate and understand the paranormal activities that go on without first knowing the history of a place. There is an amazing depth of history at Bachelors Grove. It is beautiful, magical and mysterious, but it has its dark side.”

Based on the research on families who lived there and some of the incidents that befell them, Kochmann believes some of the hauntings can be identified. Newspaper stories and other documents related to some of these dark stories round out the exhibit.

People who visit the cemetery lament the poor condition it is in, but another purpose of the exhibit is to show that progress in restoration has been made.

“We want people to see that the cemetery looked so much worse than it does now. Vandalism is so much less now. We want to give people hope; people care now and are more respectful,” said Bielski.

Bielski and Kochmann have plans to show the exhibit elsewhere in the future. The best way to track this is to follow their Facebook pages. Bielski’s is “Bachelors Grove Forever” and Kochmann’s is “The Path to Bachelors Grove.”

Bachelors Grove Cemetery has some “guardian angels” in the form of humans who help maintain it. A few of these folks were acknowledged at the exhibit premier. Kochmann and others are forest preserve volunteers who can access the cemetery for restoration and clean up. But although graffiti no longer covers the remaining tombstones, the weeds still grow tall, and people still leave their garbage behind, making constant upkeep difficult.

Some families have had ancestors moved to other cemeteries, and there is a rumor that all of the bodies were relocated at some time in the past; but there is no documentation of that.

Historians and preservationists, and even some paranormal researchers, believe that the cemetery should just be left in peace. Since it cannot be restored to its original condition and properly maintained, let nature claim it. Archeologists advise that any artifacts found on site should be left in place.

But most likely amateur ghost hunters and the just plain curious will always seek out Bachelors Grove Cemetery. The rumors of the haunted cemetery in the woods will remain its legacy. Historians hope that efforts like this exhibit will at least help to establish respect for the 100 or so people buried there.