They came to Minnesota buoyed by opportunity, in search of their own Eden.
Catholics and Protestants started farms, families, businesses and churches in the growing hamlet of Chanhassen.
But life could be cruel for the city’s first settlers.
Scarlet fever, complications in childbirth, skirmishes on the frontier and unforeseen tragedies made death a part of everyday life. That is one reason a group of female historians have chosen local cemeteries as the stage to tell the city’s history.
The city of Chanhassen and the Chanhassen Historical Society will host a Cemetery Walk this Saturday. Participants will tour the Pioneer Cemetery and the St. Hubert Cemetery.
Nearly two dozen actors from the Chaska Valley Family Theatre, dressed in period costumes, will portray people from Chanhassen’s history, standing next to their graves.
The event’s producers decided to focus on the cemeteries because in smaller rural communities-turned-suburbs, cemeteries are some of the few truly historic places left untouched.
“There was never a big downtown in Chanhassen. Our real history is our cemeteries,” said Bev Gossard, a local historian.
Producers are presenting an accurate, unvarnished telling of the city’s past. They explore the beauty, the optimism and the tragedies that punctuated daily life.
“There were insects. There were fires and lots of sickness,” Gossard said. “This was the time the Indian wars were happening. That was scary. … There is so much sadness at the Pioneer Cemetery.”
Many of the century-old graves were for children and young adults.
The event is meant to be educational, memorable and moving — not spooky, said Sandy Rodenz, a producer/director of the event and a local historian.
“These are not ghosts. These are our relatives,” Rodenz said. “It’s an opportunity to learn these people’s stories. Hopefully families will pick up on this and share their stories.”
One of the women portrayed in the tour is Rodenz’s grandmother, Sophia Kerber. An immigrant from Holland, Kerber was a farmer’s wife. She gave birth to 13 children, with 10 surviving. Kerber worked nonstop during the day to care for her family and maintain the family farm on the banks of Lotus Lake.
“It’s really stressful to live your life based on if the sun shines or if the rain falls,” said Rodenz, explaining her grandmother’s life. Rodenz never met her grandmother — she died at age 59 from complications from a ruptured appendix.
Rodenz interviewed her own mother to gather information and learned more about her own family’s origins in the process.
This is the third year the city and historical society have hosted the event. Rodenz approached city office manager Karen Engelhardt with the idea in 2009. The pair, along with Gossard, researched the area’s history. They relied heavily on primary source data — old letters and journals — to create the tour.
“Theodore Bost wrote letters to family in Switzerland. He came in November 1855 and settled,” Engelhardt said. “He gave us the clearest picture of life in early Chanhassen in his letters. Theodore Bost is our tour guide at the Pioneer Cemetery.”
Englehardt describes Bost as “strongly opinionated from a strict Protestant family.”
“He went different places to find his Garden of Eden. He went up the Mississippi and thought it was beautiful,” Gossard said.
One of the challenges in creating the show was finding the stories of women in the community, often marginalized in historical accounts.
“We had limited women’s stories. Of course they weren’t written about as much as men,” Rodenz said. But the women producers, undeterred, dug until they found those stories as well.
The tour ran in 2009 and 2010 and is resurrected this year with some new historical figures.
The ultimate goal of the event is to educate and to inspire families to visit their family grave sites and learn their own history.
“Bring your family to the cemetery walk and hopefully that will open up that dialogue for you,” Rodenz said.