By the Bend of the RiverEast Bend Mennonite Cemetery and Memorial Gardens
As I walk through this cemetery I feel at home. A host of my loved ones and friends are here, marked with stones recording and preserving the beginning and ending dates of their earthly lives. Included are my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents. In fact, my great-great grandfather Andrew Birky, Sr. was the first to be buried in the 1-acre plot of land donated from his own acreage to the East Bend Amish Church; I was his very first great-great grandchild.
Also interred here are my husband Del, his parents and grandparents. Del’s maternal grandfather, Peter Zehr, moved to this productive, black dirt farming community near the small village of Fisher in Champaign County, IL, in 1889 to serve as the first minister and bishop of the newly formed East Bend Amish Church.
There are others, memorable people like Barefoot Jake Birky and Grandma Schrock who left an impression on me, among others; Andrew and Fannie Birkey, neighbors who kept my sister and I while our parents were away; Amos Hieser, gored by a bull; Betty Oyer, mother of a best friend, whose childbirth-related death was announced at the end of a Sunday service, as my friend and I sat together, listening; the four Good brothers who sang at funerals; and Lloyd Heiser, struck by lightning while working the field.
East Bend Mennonite Church, 1907-1918
East Bend Mennonite Church, 2018
History of the church
From the large immigrant Amish community in Tazewell County, Illinois, several second-generation families moved to Champaign County, purchasing land along the east bend of the Sangamon River north of Fisher. At the time there were still several Indian families living along the river.
The following is taken from the Missionary Guide, written and given at East Bend Mennonite Church by Christine Oyer on October 27, 1971:
“In the year 1882, Charles Stormer moved to Champaign County from Tazewell County, Illinois . . . .He was the first Mennonite (Amish) settler in this area. He came here from the Dillon Creek area settlement. He was followed the next year by August Ingold and in 1887 by Jacob Heiser. Soon to follow were Andrew Birky and Peter Zehr.
“The first services were held in the Dixon school house… Later, services were held in the Houstonville Methodist Church… in 1895, a church was built at the location of the present church building.
“Ministers serving East Bend [in the earliest days] besides Peter Zehr were: Daniel Greiser, Joseph Baecher, George Gingerich, Samuel S. Zehr…”
Peter Zehr and his wife, Barbara Heiser, felt God’s call to leave their securely settled life in Tazewell County, and instead minister to a small group of people in another county. In spite of hardships that at times challenged his faith over the years, Peter’s concern was always for the welfare of the church. He had a favorite motto that influenced his life, often passed on to others: “I shall pass through this world but once, if therefore there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now, let me not deter it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Peter died in 1922, just two years after the Amish and Mennonite churches in Illinois merged into one conference. At that time the church name was changed to East Bend Mennonite Church. In the years following Peter’s death until the early 1950s, ministers were Bishop Joseph A. Heiser and Harold A. Zehr.
East Bend Mennonite continues today, a congregation affiliated as a Provisional Partner with the EVANA Network; and, partially as a result of a painful church split in the early 1950s there is a thriving independent church ministering in a neighboring community.
Dixon schoolhouse – first meeting place
Gravestone of Peter Zehr and his wife Barbara Heiser
History of the cemetery
My great-great grandparents, Andrew S. Birky and his wife Veronica Sutter, were among the first families to move from Morton to Fisher in 1891. Andrew purchased over 200 acres of land and built a house for his family. He lived on that land near the church for only four years, until his death in 1895. The 1-acre plot Andrew donated for a cemetery is less than a mile from the church. Veronica’s father, Johannes Sutter, had compiled a book of prayers published in 1874 by John F. Funk of Elkhart, Indiana. Bishop Zehr used a copy of the book in the services of the East Bend church.
Funeral card for Andrew Birky, Sr.
An article by Kathryn Cender Martin entitled Changing Funeral Practices and the Lives of Julius K. (1864-1961) and Maria (Mary) Oesch Unzicker (1869-1928) and published in Illinois Mennonite Heritage Quarterly focuses on funeral practices within the East Bend community. “From his early twenties, Julius Unzicker provided an invaluable service of assistance to bereaved families in his community in the Morton area and later when he moved to Fisher area in 1892… ”The first person I was called upon to ‘lay out’ was Andy Birky’s grandfather… at Morton.” This was likely Johannes Sutter… From that day whenever there was a death… Julius and his wife Mary would be among the first to be called… They would go to the home of the bereaved, and Mary would work all day at the home making dinner, churning butter, and baking. The funeral service and the procession to the cemetery usually followed by the third day. “Julius owned two teams of horses—a bay team and a black team. The bereaved family would decide which team they wanted for the funeral procession, and one of Julius’ sons would drive the wagon or the black hearse that was owned by the East Bend Church.” My own father recalled his memory as a boy of seven seeing the black hearse carry his father, 31-year-old Albert Elmer Schrock, who died of tuberculosis on a cold winter day in January 1917.
Hearse used for funeral processions at the East Bend Mennonite Church
East Bend Mennonite Cemetery is located in the NW Quarter of the NE Quarter of Section 19 of East Bend Township, Champaign Co., IL; East Bend Memorial Gardens lies directly across the road in Section 18. The original cemetery donated by Andrew Birky was one acre and was organized in 1895. According to Cemeteries of Champaign County, IL – A Location Guide with Plat Maps (Fonda D. Baselt and Josephine F. Moeller, copyright 1984), Christian and Mary Gut (Good) deeded more land to the cemetery in 1923.
East Bend Mennonite Cemetery
In 1969, when additional land was needed to serve the much larger church, the cemetery was extended to the other side of the small country road and named East Bend Memorial Gardens. The two acres were purchased from church members, David and Martha Birky Yoder. This section holds no upright stones; all are level with the ground—much easier for upkeep, but in my opinion, not nearly so interesting.
There will be a day in the future when my remains will join those of my relatives and friends by the east bend of the river, but my real self will be with them singing (in four-part harmony) praises to Jesus, who gave himself to bring us to the Father.
East Bend Memorial Gardens entrance
Cross-checking information on the stones with the map and database, assisted by second cousin, Justine Detweiler Trout.
Cemetery plan drawn by Daniel Teuscher
I was loaned copies of the 1927 cemetery maps in order to prepare a database of all burials in the original cemetery and the 1969 addition. The most seen surnames are Birkey/Birky (59), Heiser (60) and Zehr (46)
Surnames In The Cemetery
Past Leaders of the Church
Joseph Baecher (1853-1931)
Peter Zehr (1851-1922)
Samuel S. Zehr (1870-1943)
Joseph A. Heiser (1888-1977)
Harold A. Zehr (1903-1975)