This box will be filled with $1,500 in treasure and hidden on the grounds of Woodlawn Cemetery in Winona.

Woodlawn volunteers get a clue



Starting on April 23, Winona's Woodlawn Cemetery will be accepting volunteer assistance to prepare the 55-acre area currently in use for the Memorial Day weekend. And volunteers who contribute at least 10 hours to the clean-up will receive a special, exclusive gift: a clue. Eventually, they will receive five clues. Staff at Woodlawn have built a wooden box believed to be similar to one owned by Woodlawn founder, Ezekiel D. Williams, which will be hidden in the cemetery after May 27, containing over $1,500 in prizes from local merchants who are sponsoring this first annual treasure hunt at Woodlawn Cemetery. "The ideal thing is they can work two hours a week, or any combination they want," said Al Paffrath, former superintendent for the cemetery and current assistant around the office. "They can work all 10 hours the first week, but they still only get the next clue [the following] Monday morning," he explained. "They will all get the last clue at the same time that last morning. It'll be kind of a romp."

May is the busiest month for Woodlawn, as it struggles to prepare the sprawling cemetery for the Memorial Day holiday and for the summer when Winonans and others come to Woodlawn to visit with departed loved ones, soak up the history of the 156-year-old graveyard, or simply walk the paths and enjoy one of the most scenic cemeteries in the state. While between 55 and 60 acres are currently in use, Woodlawn itself covers 210 acres, all the way to the tops of the surrounding wooded hills. "May is basically crunch time," Paffrath said. "Really, it's done to get the cemetery ready for Memorial Day, so everything leading up to that certainly helps." While Woodlawn staff have mowers, edgers and other tools, they welcome anyone who can bring his or her own lawnmower or equipment. There will be plenty of work to do either way. "A big job in springtime is picking up limbs and branches that fell down over the winter, because we can't even mow until that's done," Paffrath explained. 

Woodlawn Superintendent Tim Leahy credited Paffrath with a lot of the conceptual work behind the scavenger hunt idea. They have tried different ideas to get volunteers to come and help, but this year they decided to do something different. "We're hoping with the treasure hunt that we benefit by getting some volunteers to help out, and they benefit by learning a little more about Woodlawn, as well as potentially finding treasure," Leahy explained. "People really get a better understanding of the cemetery, the different aspects. There are so many different periods. The intent was to have to pay attention to the details of the clues to get that right location." 

And there are a lot of details to see in Woodlawn Cemetery. Weeping angels and broken columns, ornate standing crypts and humble mossy markers spread across the green slopes and among the enormous trees. Woodlawn holds the remains of Stephan Taylor, the only Revolutionary War veteran interred in the state of Minnesota, as well as veterans of every American conflict since. The Watkins family has a crypt in Woodlawn, wherein resides the founder of Watkins Incorporated. Winona's own legendary benefactor John A. Latsch rests there as well.

Working in the cemetery will also provide treasure hunters with important intelligence. Paffrath didn't want to make the hunt exclusively for local history buffs. "It helps," he admitted. "The clues may mention some local businesses or former Winonans, but the way I made them out, it's easier if they do [know some history] but not impossible if they don't." 

Paffrath put a lot of time into writing the clues and assembling the whole hunt in a way that would be fair for everyone. There are multiple paths to the final location of the treasure, so, as Paffrath explained, "They all go to the same place by different routes, so you'll have to pick one." Leahy warned possible treasure hunters, "Don't be swayed by going after a group." Paffrath, who has clearly thought through a number of possible tactics, added, "Because they might be lost. Or there might be some people deliberately going in a false direction. Being a fast runner is an advantage on that last day." 

Leahy was pleased with how many local businesses contributed to the treasure. "The cash value is $1,500," he explained. "All the sponsors contributed $100, and in reality the money goes back to those businesses." Sponsors include Island City Brewing, Midtown Foods, Sullivan's Supper Club, Target, and Mugby Junction, among many others, each of whom is offering a $100 value to the shrewd volunteer who solves the riddle. 

The chest that will contain the treasure (represented by certificates — the actual prizes will be kept in the office in case someone not participating in the hunt accidentally finds the chest), is a handmade wooden box with a hasp and lock, inspired by one possibly owned by Woodlawn founder, E.D. Williams. Williams, who was co-owner of the Huff House, a renowned luxury hotel in Winona's history, founded Woodlawn Cemetery in 1862. He himself is interred there, on the family plot of Huff House co-owner, Colonel Frank Cockrell. Williams died in a gas explosion at the hotel on the day before Halloween in 1872. "It was a big thing in Winona," said Paffrath. "Businesses closed on the day of the funeral." Paffrath decided to focus on Williams for the treasure hunt — he portrays Williams in the annual Cemetery Walk that Woodlawn holds each October. "I always play him," Paffrath laughed. "He's like an alter ego." Paffrath has not committed to growing replicas of Williams' formidable muttonchop sideburns, however. 

No shovels or digging will be required for the hunt. It is a top priority of the staff at Woodlawn that the hunt be respectful of those interred there and their families. While the volunteers will be a crucial part of getting Woodlawn shipshape for the summer, it's also an opportunity to bring more people onto the grounds to appreciate the sprawling hilly cemetery, with its meandering roads that zig-zag up the slopes, its shady lanes and quiet valleys. "We have a lot of people come out here whether to exercise, pay homage to family members, a whole host of things," said Leahy. "We're seeing a surge of people wanting to know about their family history. We get calls from around the U.S., 'Can you send information regarding my great-great-grandfather,' for example." There are often people enjoying quiet walks around the tiered, winding roads. Couples have taken wedding photos in Woodlawn, and high school students take their yearbook photos there. 

The more volunteers who participate, the more likely that Woodlawn staff will make the treasure hunt an annual event. "We're hoping there is a good turnout, and that people have fun," said Leahy. If participants decide to cooperate as a team, or a business decides  to sponsor its employees, staff at Woodlawn are open to that, as long as each participant has completed his or her 10 volunteer hours, and they are willing to share the treasure. And the potential for good-natured rivalry could benefit both the cemetery and the hunters.


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