Cemetery tour resurrects interest in Chanhassen's history

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2013 - 4:53 PM

The event’s organizers chose to tell Chanhassen’s history at cemeteries, because graveyards are among the few historic places left untouched.

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Sandy Rodenz, left, Karen Engelhardt and Bev Gossard, the trio behind the Chanhassen Cemetery Walk, visited the Pioneer Cemetery.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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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.”

  • Chanhassen Cemetery Walk

    When: Saturday, 1 and 4 p.m.

    Where: St. Hubert’s Plaza, 381 W. 78th St.

    Cost: Free, but reservations are required, and each session is limited to 50 people. Call 952-227-1100 to register.

    Also: An ADA-friendly Cemetery Walk at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chanhassen Senior Center, 7700 Market Blvd.

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