Covered in grit and the stink of floodwater, men frantically heaved sandbags on top of Winona dikes as the Mississippi River floodwaters rose in 1965. Their efforts held back the bulk of the deluge, but another threat imperiled the city: water bubbling up from the city's sewers. Manholes would soon burst like across the city and Winona would be swamped like a punctured boat, engineers warned, unless they could find a volunteer for a dangerous mission.
Winona milkman Raymond Beyers, then 34, accepted the role in the scheme to save the city. The former Navy diver donned a borrowed diving suit and plunged into 17 feet of opaque, muddy water. Feeling around in the blackness, Beyers stuffed sewer lines full of "dunnage" bags — giant inflatable rubber balloons used to secure freight — and pumped them full of air. "Either these balloons were going to work or sewers were going to start backing up," explained Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) Assistant Director Jennifer Weaver. They did work and Beyers "basically saved the city," she added.
Beyers' courageous plunge is just one of the amazing stories from Winona's watery past that actors will bring to life at the 14th annual WCHS "Voices from the Past: Woodlawn Cemetery Walk" this weekend. Every year, scores of volunteer actors depict the life and times of Winonans buried at the bluffside cemetery. Guides lead visitors on their time-traveling tour, and singers sweeten the air with old-time music.
This year's theme is "The Lure and Lore of the Mississippi River," a salute to riverboat captain and John Latsch pal Frank Fugina's memoir of the steamboat epoch on the Upper Mississippi. During months of research, event planners used Fugina's book, rolls upon rolls of archived microfiche, and interviews with locals with family stories to select river-related tales and construct their characters.
"Winona was built on the river and owes its success to the river," organizer Michelle Alexander said. However, the river is also "such a broad topic" that it was hard to narrow the stories down, organizer Jonelle Moore explained. That is to say, there was no lack of good material. "We try to get to personal stories. We try to make them as real as possible," Moore said. Good, detailed stories allow the audience a clear window into the past and a visceral connection to history.
"So often when you go up to a cemetery you forget those were real people," Alexander explained. "It's hard to imagine what their lives were like." The cemetery walk changes all that for Alexander.
While the event focuses on the lives of everyday people, it also offers a chance to see well-known Winonans playing well-known, deceased Winonans. Dan Pomeroy and Ray Felton will take turns playing John Latsch, joining 60 other actors. Among the people actors will portray are Cal Fremling, John Holzinger, for whom Holzinger Lodge is named, Marc Tainter, Rudolph Ellings, mayor of Winona during the flood of 1965, Carl Gerlicher, Samuel Van Gorder, who ran a ferry across the river and has a slough named for him, Captain Orrin Smith, who first claimed Winona, and the riverboat captains Karnath.
More than ever, this year's event drew from family histories, giving the performances great depth, Alexander said. "People you'll know are portraying family members, and for the first time, that I know, we're finally portraying our generation," she added. The much-loved Cal Fremling is among the more recent remembrances — very fitting for a history of the river and Winona. "People this year were so willing to come forward" and share their family stories, Alexander noted.
Woodlawn "is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the state," Moore said, and this event "is such a fun way to learn about the history of the city in a personal way."
"I'm a history major," Alexander confessed, when asked about sifting through Winona's rich past. "So for me it's like, 'wow, I have an all-you-can eat buffet in front of me.'"
The cemetery walk is open Saturday, October 12, and Sunday, October 13. Tours will leave from the gate every few minutes from noon to 3 p.m. Those unable to make the walk on foot can reserve a spot on Trester Trolley tours of the event by calling 507-454-2723 extension '0.' An indoor, wheelchair-accessible performance will be presented this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Winona County History Center. Admission for any of the options is $7 for adults, $5 for students, and $3 for children under 12. Proceeds benefit the WCHS.