Winona, MN: Woodlawn Cemetery

Close up of a grave stone from Woodlawn Cemetery in Winona, MN showing a birthdate of August, 17 1801.

In the heart of the receding-glacier carved Hiawatha Valley, the Mighty Mississippi flows between the Minnesota and Wisconsin shores. An early destination for fur traders, lumberjacks, and iron miners was Winona, now a quaint river and college town with the usual assortment of chain box stores and restaurants on the outskirts and local attractions on what used to be Main Street.

Winona is my hometown. It was a great place to grow up; safe for kids on bicycles with lots of places to explore. Although I moved to Minneapolis at age 21 to pursue my career in commercial photography, Winona never lost its place in my heart. As a photographic subject, there are many interesting places that I know intimately, and I sometimes visit just to get away and exercise my shutter finger.

One such interesting place is Woodlawn Cemetery. It’s nestled into the land at the bottom of the bluffs that define the edge of town, just south of the four lane Highway 61. Many of the early Winona business pioneers can be found here; the Watkins and Haddad families, or more contemporary figures such as Dennis Challeen, a local judge who began the Sentence to Service program in America. Aside from the famous, this cemetery is a silent record of a once roaring river town.

Winona has held a steady population of around 25,000 since I was a boy. It’s doubtful it will ever grow much larger, as the physical water boundaries around the city will not permit it. Woodlawn has over 22,350 “residents” and is sometimes referred to as the “Silent City,” but I’m not sure by whom.

My latest visit began early on a mid-September morning. The grass was wet with dew, the air crisp and clean. The only noise, aside from the soft drone of the highway, was from birds starting their day. A slight fog hung in the air, waiting to be burned off by the sun but still shielded by the hills. Shooting into soft darkness can yield beautiful and evocative images.

Mossy stone crypt wall.

An old mausoleum, carved into the hill itself and with steps leading nowhere, is said to be haunted. If you take advantage of this unusual light, you should be safe once the sun comes up.

Forgotten crypt under the shade of a tree.

It’s a beautiful place for photography in early morning because shadows are still deep and the light is soft at first, then oblique. Statues of ancient guardians share space with statues of mourning humans and take on personality in such light. Moss, visible on many of the old statues and headstones, adds easy color to the monotone stone.

Mossy statue peaks over the leaves at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Mossy statue in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Are you a jogger? A run through Woodlawn is an exhilarating yet peaceful way to start your day. If you hike, there are many trails that will take you up, down, and through the beautiful bluffs.

Should you find yourself in Winona (and you should), be sure to check out Woodlawn. You needn’t be a photographer; walking or jogging through Woodlawn is a wonderful experience by itself. Be sure to find the grave of Stephen Taylor (1757-1857) the only known Revolutionary War soldier to be buried in Minnesota, and the three mysterious faces of unknown origin near Potters’ Field.