Connecting to the Past: Face to Face with the Founders

By Denise DePaolo

Images by Elizabeth Lucille Photography

They say death is just a part of life, and as long as we’re remembered, we can live on. That is the idea behind Sioux Heritage Museums’ Voices from the Past: Woodlawn by Lantern tours.

Many people living in Sioux Falls pass Woodlawn Cemetery every day, regarding the sprawling, fence-enclosed property with nary a glance. But beyond the iron gates, hundreds and hundreds of names emblazoned on granite and marble represent lives every bit as full and interesting as ours. They were pioneers, immigrants, soldiers, suffrage fighters, temperance advocates, businesspeople, and invariably, part of the story of the Sioux Falls community. This month, we have the chance to learn something about those lives.

Unlike cemetery tours elsewhere, Voices from the Past is more about the history than the macabre. The only spooky thing about it is that groups are led through the cemetery in the evening, with the only illumination provided by moonlight and a pair of lanterns.

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“This isn’t a haunted hayride,” explained SHM education assistant Paavo Rasmussen. “We obviously take advantage of the setting without a lot of theatricality. Nothing cheap or tawdry. It’s a place of respect, but it’s a place of remembrance. This was designed as a place where people would feel comfortable coming in to be with their dearly departed. We’re honoring the wishes of the designer, R.F. Pettigrew, who wanted a cemetery that felt welcoming.”  

“It’s not a haunted tour at all,” agreed Gary Conradi, a member of Woodlawn’s board of directors. “It’s more of an informational tour about some of our early pioneers who helped to create Sioux Falls, who were very influential in its development. I think it’s just very important to remember something about these individuals.”

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The stories of those buried at Woodlawn are told by actors stationed near grave markers throughout the cemetery. Groups follow roughly half a mile of pathway with four to six stops. At each stop, an actor dressed in period costume shares some of the most interesting aspects of their character’s life.

These characters include private citizens like Mary Franz, the lone member of her family buried in Woodlawn under that spelling (due to anti-German sentiment during World War I, the surname was changed to “France”) and the founders of the Moe hospital (which became Sioux Valley, and now Sanford). Names that we take for granted like Tuthill and Miller come alive once again. And we learn that “Burnside” isn’t just a street; he was the longest-serving mayor of Sioux Falls. A mayor who once performed a wedding inside a lion’s cage.

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“In the 20s, a traveling circus came in and they had a big lion cage. He and the couple and the lion trainer actually went in,” Rasmussen said, laughing. “He agreed on a whim, and then he got into the cage and was like, ‘Why did I do this?’ He said it was the fastest ceremony he ever did, and then he quickly backed out of the cage.”

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Read the full article in the October issue or click here