The beginning of Decorah told by those who lived it

Emma+Young+%28performed+by+Jana+Klosterboer%29+was+the+mother+of+Grace+Young+%28performed+by+Lara+Martinsen-Burrell+%28%E2%80%9899%29%29.+The+two+communicated+through+letter+while+Grace+lived+in+New+Jersey%2C+away+from+her+mother+in+Decorah.
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The beginning of Decorah told by those who lived it

Emma Young (performed by Jana Klosterboer) was the mother of Grace Young (performed by Lara Martinsen-Burrell (‘99)). The two communicated through letter while Grace lived in New Jersey, away from her mother in Decorah.

Emma Young (performed by Jana Klosterboer) was the mother of Grace Young (performed by Lara Martinsen-Burrell (‘99)). The two communicated through letter while Grace lived in New Jersey, away from her mother in Decorah.

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips

Emma Young (performed by Jana Klosterboer) was the mother of Grace Young (performed by Lara Martinsen-Burrell (‘99)). The two communicated through letter while Grace lived in New Jersey, away from her mother in Decorah.

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips

Emma Young (performed by Jana Klosterboer) was the mother of Grace Young (performed by Lara Martinsen-Burrell (‘99)). The two communicated through letter while Grace lived in New Jersey, away from her mother in Decorah.

Aidan O'Driscoll, Staff Writer

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In partnership with ArtHaus and the Porter House Museum, Upstart Crow Theatreworks presented its historically-based Cemetery Walk on Sunday, Sept. 23 at Phelps Cemetery in Decorah.

Amidst a sea of headstones, towering oak trees, and rolling topography, actors of all ages played the lives of former Decorah residents. Each described their unique role in Decorah’s history. Among those depicted were the Day family, one of the first to settle in Decorah; Miss Rinnie Norton, a young girl who died at 18 from diphtheria; and Grace Young, wife of Bert Porter, the namesake of the Porter House Museum.

This year’s Cemetery Walk was, in part, a benefit for the Porter House Museum. Many of the scenes had direct connections to former Porter House inhabitants.

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips
Storme Barr performed as the bubbly Miss Rinnie Norton during the Cemetery Walk. Some locals believe that it is the spirit of Rinnie that haunts the Porter House Museum.

Some of the stories were strictly factual and others were fictionalized, but all were based on historical research. Founding director of Upstart Crow Theatreworks, former director of ArtHaus, and adjunct faculty in theatre at Luther Kristen Underwood wrote and directed the Cemetery Walk by consulting old obituaries, newspaper articles, and genealogy documents. 19th century journalism was particularly helpful to her, given its artful descriptions.

“The language of journalism used to be so floral,” Underwood said. “It was just exploding with description. So that was helpful to read the kinds of words they would use to describe somebody — the things they were known for. You get a sense of who they were.”

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips
Lily Sandhorst, Professor of English Nancy Barry, and Professor of English David Faldet (‘79) acted as members of the Day family, arguably the first white family to claim land in Decorah.

Historical documents, especially primary documents like newspapers, helped Underwood capture the story of Norton.

“Her obituary talks about the funeral process and the pedestrians and carriages stretching from the Porter House to Phelps Cemetery, which is over a mile,” Underwoood said. “The whole town mourned the passing of this winsome girl who had a smile and a word for everything, so we can imagine this was a chatty, friendly, extroverted little girl who made friends with everyone — we can imagine what kind of person she is.”

The walk itself, which wound around the cemetery, consisted of seven scenes. Cast members were adults who had been recruited or volunteered. Children who registered through ArtHaus were also cast in the Cemetery Walk.

Aidan O’Driscoll (‘19) | Chips
Phelps Cemetery was the location of the Cemetery Walk hosted by Arthaus, Upstart Crow Theatreworks, and Porter House Musuem.

“It is great to see this group of people — community members, professors, this disparate group of people coming together — that have all really invested in this project and are bringing these people back to life, telling their stories,” Underwood said. “With the Cemetery Walk in particular, you look around and you see all the headstones and every one is a story.”

Interlibrary Loan Coordinator and year-round staff member at the Porter House Museum Emily Mineart (‘10) served as a tour guide on the Cemetery Walk, providing historical background as she brought attendees from scene to scene. She enjoyed having Upstart Crow, ArtHaus, and the Porter House work together on the production.

“Being able to partner with people who have that expertise, [to] join their amazing strengths and interests and passions with the strengths and interests and passions of the Porter House is great,” Mineart said. “The sum is greater than its parts, you know. It really helps us — our little tiny museum that could.”

Through portraying the lives and the stories of these former Decorah residents, Underwood hoped to bring to life a portion of the town’s past and allow attendees to reflect on their present and the future.

“I think the reason to preserve that history is to enrich our present,” Underwood said. “Maybe people who go on the Cemetery Walk and then walk passed the Porter House will think about the role that that house played in the past, and then think: ‘what role do I play in my present?’ Making connections between the past and our lives now.”

Associate Professor of Nursing Jayme Nelson (‘87) attended the Cemetery Walk and enjoyed learning about
Decorah’s history.

“It really brings history to life, to have a walk like this on a beautiful fall day in a very peaceful setting,” Nelson said. “It is a way to connect to the past of what Decorah was and makes you think a little bit about the future and this beautiful area.”

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