PEORIA — When he first saw pennies scattered on soldiers' graves at Springdale Cemetery, Al Harkrader was mystified.

A longtime volunteer groundskeeper in the cemetery’s Soldiers Hill, Harkrader frequently sees evidence of recent visitors when he’s mowing, raking leaves or putting out flags for holidays. The pennies are a common sight.

“I asked around and somebody told me visitors leave those. So I Googled it and there were a bunch of explanations,” he said.

A quick search revealed that a coin left on a headstone is a message to the soldier’s family that someone visited the grave to pay their respects. Visitors usually leave a penny, while fellow soldiers leave a nickel. A dime means the visitor served with the soldier, and a quarter tells the family that the visitor was with the soldier when he died.

The tradition of leaving coins on headstones can be traced back as the Roman Empire. The practice became common during the Vietnam War, when a visit with a fallen soldier’s family would sometimes lead to an uncomfortable political discussion. By leaving a coin behind at a grave site, visitors could show respect without actually talking to relatives.

One grave on Soldiers Hill is particularly popular — Civil War soldier Nathan Reed. His headstone often holds a handful of coins, said Harkrader.

“I looked him up. There was a story in the Journal Star some time back. He enlisted in the Civil War when he was 16. He has a daughter who still visits the grave,” said Harkrader.

The daughter, Mary Ella Reed Lewis of East Peoria, was born in 1928. She was an infant when her father died at age 80. Though she doesn’t remember her father, she and her family visit his grave frequently.

Though the practice of leaving coins on soldiers' graves is not widely known, there must be a number of local people who practice the tradition faithfully, said Mark Matuszak, cemetery general manager.

“There is always change on the headstones,” he said. “So apparently there’s some pretty dedicated people who do it on a regular basis, and it’s pretty cool.”

Matuszak would like to see the practice expand.

“When kids come here on tours, they always wonder what the coins are about,” he said. “It would be wonderful if the kids came out with pennies.”

Though coins show up at all times of the year, the practice seems to be most popular during holidays. Last Memorial Day someone left a coin on every single grave on Soldier’s Hill, said Harkrader.

“That’s more than 800 graves. Somebody must have bought $8 worth of pennies.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.