BLOOMINGTON — Judith Myers hopes her work can save time for others — in more ways than one.

"People complain that (genealogy) takes over their life. They get into it, and they find out how much time it takes to look up information, even in this digital age," she said. "But it's so important. People want their children and grandchildren to have this history. It's a part of them."

Myers is one of many dedicated volunteers from the McLean County Genealogical Society working to preserve that history for future generations.

Their latest project is a book recording everyone interred at East Lawn Memorial Gardens, a 11,878-grave cemetery at the corner of Airport Road and Empire Street on Bloomington's east side.

To compile the 310-page tome, Myers and a half-dozen partners pored over records from the cemetery and elsewhere — including The Pantagraph's extensive online archives at newspaper.com — for nearly two years, assembling missing pieces until almost every blank was filled on the thousands buried at East Lawn.

Among the most notable: Sylvia Mae Harbaugh Caldwell Mecherle, a Titanic survivor and the wife of State Farm founder George Mecherle; Augustus Hamilton Belt and Edith Presser Belt, founders of Steak 'n Shake; and Harold E. Bathe, who owned the cemetery. The book has details on each.

"It was just a matter of plodding along day by day and getting the information," said Myers, who also cited ancestry.com, findagrave.com and the Social Security Death Index among the society's sources. "It was thousands (of hours). ... I had notebooks (feet) deep of records."

Myers said the society hopes to cover all of McLean County's cemeteries. East Lawn's book is labeled, "McLean County Cemeteries, Vol. 22."

Members did similar books for Evergreen Memorial and Park Hill cemeteries in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

"We're very glad to get East Lawn, thanks to (Manager) Jim (Hough). We tried for a lot of years, and then Jim came in, saw the value of genealogy and went to bat for us. ... We were delighted and moved in right away before they could change their minds," Myers said with a laugh. "This one is the last large cemetery in the county."

Though taxing, East Lawn was a smaller project than the 27,000-grave Evergreen or 17,000-grave Park Hill cemeteries, she said. It also was easier because records were kept somewhat consistently since its founding in 1935 — though volunteers still ran into a few issues.

"Sometimes they just signed a 3-by-5-(inch) card saying, 'Bury them, please,'" Hough said with a laugh.

"There were so many versions of that card," added Bill LaBounty, another society member and volunteer, who laid out the book. "(The record for) 1952 to 1981 was an oblong record book with 300 pages and 22 or 23 lines (per page), all handwritten by multiple people in different-colored inks."

Under a 2010 state law, recent burials are cataloged in a digital database that should make future books unnecessary, Myers said.

"If there was a project I'd like to see done, it would be to get the hand-typed books on the computer. Some of them were done in the '70s and '80s, and they need to be digitized or at least put on a computer," she added.

Hough said he looks forward to using the book as a reference for families as well as geneaologists.

"We do what we can, but sometimes a genealogist will come in with 30 names, and the day-to-day operations don't always allow us to stop for that," he said. "Now we can we say, 'Here, take a look.'"

Books are available for $75 at mcgs.org or by mailing MCGS, P.O. Box 488, Normal, IL 61761-0488. Shipping is $6.50 to a home or free to the McLean County Museum of History, where the society is based.

"It was an eye-opener for me, and I thought I knew quite a bit," Myers said of the book with a laugh. "I learned how little I really know."

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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Staff Writer

Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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