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Finding Minnesota: Winona’s Cemetery Walk

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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WINONA, Minn. (WCCO) – When the earliest settlers arrived in what is now Winona, it was not only the beauty of the surrounding bluffs that drew them in. It was the potential they saw along the Mississippi River.

Many of the founders’ bodies may be buried along a bluff nearby, but the stories of what they started are still being kept alive.

For a few days this week, visitors to Woodlawn Cemetery will get to hear those stories from costumed actors at the various grave sites.

Retired steamboat captain Richard Karnath will be portraying his own father, Walt Karnath, who spent 55 years as a steamboat captain himself.

“The river’s in your blood and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Karnath said. “Without the steamboats, Winona wouldn’t be here.”

At another corner of the cemetery is the headstone of biology teacher Cal Fremling, who died in 2010. He was a river expert who made sure his students understood what they had.

A family friend, Steve Bachler, has volunteered to tell Fremling’s story.

“I used to take them out on pontoons and boats and go in the back waters, and we’d just spend all of our days just studying the river,” Bachler said, portraying Fremling

This is the 14th year for the annual Cemetery Walk, a fundraiser for the Winona County Historical Society.

According to event chair Kathy Turner, it’s scheduled to coincide with Woodlawn’s prettiest season.

“This place, when the leaves change, it’s absolutely glorious,” Turner said.

Sixth graders in every Winona school make it their annual fall field trip.

“The first year, the kids would come and say, ‘Is this going to be scary?’” Turner said. “And of course we said, ‘No, it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be educational.’”

Sometimes they’ll meet the city’s heroes. Other times, it’ll be the scoundrels. Ray Beyers was a hero who will be played by Pastor Sonny Misar.

“We needed to save our city. We needed to make sure we didn’t flood,” Misar said, portraying Beyers.

In the spring of 1965, melting snow and heavy rains sent the Mississippi River over its banks and threatened to overtake Winona’s storm sewers as it blew open manhole covers.

Beyers was a milk man who had been in the Navy. He volunteered to dive into the raging river with an inflatable bag to block an inlet and protect the sewer system.

“Winona was the city that saved itself because of how we acted during the flood of 1965, and it was national news,” Misar said.

It’s a reminder that behind every date of birth and death you see etched in granite was a real person with a real story, stories that Winona honors each fall.

“We’re surrounded by some great nature and some great people in this fantastic historic cemetery,” he said.

Tours for the general public will be on October 12 and 13 starting at noon. Click here for information about tickets and times.

Do you have a Finding Minnesota story to suggest? Click here to tell us!

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