In the fall, one of my favorite things to do is hang around Woodlawn Cemetery. Okay, I realize that sounds kind of strange, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one.
Woodlawn is not your ordinary cemetery. Tucked into the base of the bluffs, it has rolling hills and thick groves of maples that turn brilliant when temperatures cool, transforming the sprawling grounds from serenely pretty to breathtakingly beautiful. I wander its winding roads sometimes just to soak in its peacefulness and marvel at how Winona’s forefathers could have been so smart to ignore the conventional wisdom of development and leave a place in such a postcard perfect state.
I mean let’s face it — way back when early Winonans were looking for a place to bury their dead, it would have been much easier to clear the land, flatten it and line up neat rows of graves. Upkeep must be a nightmare with all those billions of leaves falling on those rolling hills, but there is something so dignified, so elegant about handing folks over to their maker in a place that looks like that.
But wait, there’s more…
Woodlawn is a fascinating look at Winona’s history, and I could spend hours wandering through monuments that date back to the Civil War and include names that until then I’d only seen on street signs. Some of the markers are small and crumbling with age, others are spectacularly carved monoliths, each provokes a moment of thought about that person and their story. I’m sad when I pass the graves of children, and warmed by the headstones of couples who lived to a ripe old age together. These people were all part of Winona’s past, and frankly I just think it’s kind of cool.
Thankfully, the Winona Historical Society thinks it’s cool too, and every fall puts on a cemetery walk that brings stories of the people in Woodlawn back to life for a few days.
Folks at the Historical Society pour through history books and pick an assortment of people who lived interesting or illustrious lives. Then they dress actors up, teach them the story and send them out there to stand around the graves and talk about who they were. Every year for the newspaper I’ve gone and followed groups of school children who attend the tour, and I’m telling you, they love it. Some of my favorite pictures are of kids sitting spellbound while a child actor explains what scarlet fever is and how it killed him.
Yeah, I know. Morbid, but still cool. Living history has a way of tickling wonder better than words on a page ever could. Too bad we couldn’t act out all our history lessons for kids – though I imagine the War of the Roses might get to be a bit bloody for the younger set… But they’d sure remember who Henry VI was.
The Voices From the Past Woodlawn Cemetery Walk is coming up – it’s always the end of the second week in October and runs through Saturday and Sunday for the public. If you’ve ever wondered about Winona’s history, this is the ticket. If you’ve ever wanted to take a stroll in a place more beautiful than you can imagine, this is the ticket for that too. But definitely don’t take my word for it, see it for yourself. This tour will be the best $7 you’ve ever spent.
For more information on the cemetery walk, visit the Winona County Historical Society at: http://www.winonahistory.org/wordpress/