Finding the Path: How "Strolling with the Spirits" Comes to Life

Posted by Shelby Davis on Thursday, November 4, 2021

Introduction: What Is the Stroll?

At the Grout Museum District, we organize and host a lot of fun and informative programming, but since its inception in the mid-2000's, the annual “Strolling with the Spirits” Cemetery Walk has become perhaps one of the most well-loved and well-received.

The premise is simple: guests are taken on a guided tour through one of Waterloo’s cemeteries, and actors wait at certain graves to portray the “spirits” of prominent historical figures from Waterloo’s history via pre-written scripts. Although “Strolling” is our annual Halloween event, it is not meant to send a chill up your spine. Rather, this event serves to both honor heroes of Waterloo’s past and inform the public about what life was like from the city’s humble Pioneer days up to today.

But the spirits don’t rise on their own! This event takes a tremendous amount of planning, research, and preparation to get off the ground year after year. In this article, we’ll take you through the process of how this magical program is brought to life, again and again.

Fairview Cemetery, 2021. Credit: Shelby Davis of SRD Photopgrahy LLC

Part I: Where to Walk, and With Whom?

The first step to properly organizing Strolling with the Spirits is choosing a cemetery. Often, we do this by first looking back at recent years to see where we have been, so that we can choose somewhere relatively fresh and unused. This is not always an easy task–some cemeteries are far older than others, and therefore have more potential for an event like this–but we do our best!

After looking over past years, we begin researching well-known figures from the city’s history and grouping them by which cemetery they are located within. Often, the decision comes down to which cemetery has the most people who fit the “theme” we are looking for. 2019 was a year of Pioneers, 2020’s theme was Black History (though because it was a video due to COVID-19, multiple cemeteries were used), and 2021’s theme was “Women of Waterloo.”

For the 2021 walk, basing the entire event around famous women proved daunting; not because Waterloo has any shortage of incredible and inspiring historical women, but because it is often much more difficult to find written records about women than it is for men. More often than not, we ended up reading the obituaries of the husbands and sons to learn more about the wives and mothers.

However, as we found more and more information on Waterloo’s many matriarchs, we ultimately decided Fairview Cemetery was the place for us in 2021. Five women were selected: Frances Augusta Grout, Elizabeth Brooks Starr, Alice M. Hickey, Harriett R. Russell Head, and Maude J. Rath. With our cemetery and spirits chosen, the long work of scriptwriting could now begin.

A map of Fairview Cemetery drawn by the Northeast Iowa Genealogical Society, 2015.

Part II: Speaking for the Spirits

Writing for the dead is hard work. Strolling with the Spirits is, to put it simply, 50% lecture; 50% theatre. We want the spirits’ stories to be informative and as true-to-life as possible, but we also want their stories to be compelling, entertaining, and to leave a lasting impression on the audience. We begin with an outline consisting of everything we know about the person who is being portrayed, and then we begin to “fill in” that outline with prose and personality.

And personality is where things get tricky.

The one piece of information we almost always lack no matter who we are writing about is the deceased individual’s actual personality. Unless we are lucky enough to find someone who knew them personally–and even then, we only know how that one person remembers them–we are essentially guessing based on what we can dig up from their histories. That is where the creative element comes into play. We do our best to imbue the scripts we write with life and love even if, ultimately, we may never know what that person was truly like when they were alive.

One amusing example comes from the 2019 Stroll. One of the spirits we featured was Waterloo Pioneer America Mullen, along with her husband, Charles. Having no first-hand accounts to base our interpretations off, but finding their story incredibly harrowing and inspiring, we wrote both pioneers with a decidedly hope-filled and optimistic tone. What we did not know, however, was that one of America’s relatives, whose father had known the pioneer in her old age, was going to be attending the Stroll! Although he very much enjoyed the event and portrayal, he confessed to us somewhat cheekily that–by his father's account–America was a rather strict and somewhat bitter person, whose tendency for harsh discipline was largely feared by her grandchildren! Although she was loved and respected by all, he said she never would have shown the warmth and kindness which we portrayed her as having.

That is, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of working on this event. Although we put an immense amount of effort into interpreting these historical titans with as much accuracy as we can, it is simply not possible to be sure we are getting certain details right. Knowing the timeline of someone’s life, even a particularly detailed one, does not fully convey to the audience who that person truly was in their living. So, what we end up doing is telling a story, with the actors portraying something perhaps more akin to a monument of a historical figure, rather than portraying the figure themselves; hence, an interpretation.

Photographs of four of the featured Spirits for 2021 L to R; Harriett R. Russell Head, Alice M. Round Hickey, Frances Augusta Grout, and Elizabeth Brooks Starr, exact dates unknown.

Part III: Giving Faces to the Names

After the scripts have been written–or, more often than not, as they are being written–the search begins for actors to portray the year’s spirits. Typically, we only have one or two photographs of the historical figures to work from, and that is if we are lucky. We tend to focus more on finding people capable of telling a great story than finding people who look exactly like the individuals they are going to be portraying. This is yet another instance of “theatre vs lecture”: almost no one in the audience will know what these historical figures looked like, but everyone will know if the performance is bad.

The 2021 cast of Strolling with the Spirits from L to R: B.J. Moeller, Joshalyn “Rocki” Hickey Johnson, DuRaae Davis, Katie Marie and Gena Marie.

The search can take some time, as not everyone is willing to stand out in the cold in October, especially in a cemetery at night. But inevitably, we find our resilient people and the rehearsal process begins. When we are able, we schedule at least one group rehearsal, and a rehearsal with each individual actor. Coordinating schedules can be very tricky! This is a good place to give credit where credit is due: the actors who portray the spirits each year put in an incredible amount of their own hard work to make the event happen. We can only do so much, after all, and when the time comes to perform, the actors are on their own. We are always impressed by the talent of our actors, and the life they bring to the incredible figures from our past.

Another major element in this portion of the process is costuming. The past three years, we have been grateful to receive help from the costume shop at the Waterloo Community Playhouse. If you have ever worn and or just been around vintage or historic clothing, then you know how hard it can be to find something that fits modern bodies and is comfortable enough to wear for an extended period. These past few years, our spirits have "come back" in style thanks in part to the efforts of the WCP. 

The 2021 cast of Strolling with the Spirits in costume from the Waterloo Community Playhouse, from L to R: Joshalyn “Rocki” Hickey Johnson as Alice M. Hickey, DuRaae Davis as Frances Augusta Grout, B.J. Moeller as Elizabeth Brooks Starr, Gena Marie as Maude J. Rath, and Katie Marie Albright as Harriett R. Russell Head. Credit: Shelby Davis of SRD Photopgrahy LLC

Part IV: Strolling with the Spirits

With all the research, writing, casting, and rehearsing behind us, the day finally arrives. Typically, the event takes place on the third Saturday in October. The tour guides dress in black and drive out to the cemetery 30-45 minutes before the first event to place the actors at their respective gravesites. This is the most difficult time for the actors–we can attest because we have done it ourselves–standing at the grave for anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, waiting for the crowd to gather around you so that you can finally recite your spirit’s life story.

Technically, there are two Strolling with the Spirits events every year: a 3:30pm show, and a 7:00pm show. This may not sound like much, but anyone with even a low level of acting experience can tell you how daunting it is to give two performances on the same day, especially outdoors on a chilly autumn evening.

Prior to the event, the guides walk the path to ensure we do not lead our groups astray, and then we check attendees in at the cemetery gates. Once everyone has arrived, the time has come to begin the journey. The Stroll traditionally lasts around 45 minutes to an hour, but this time goes by quickly. Once the first Stroll ends around 4:30pm, the actors and guides get about two hours to rest, eat, and warm up before the second stroll at 7:00pm.

The 7:00pm stroll is always our favorite. The dark, quiet cemetery is lit only by candles and flashlights, and it gives the whole event an eerie, surreal feeling that really suits the tone. The crowd huddles close in the cold, and the path is only illuminated as far as our flashlights will allow. It is as close to “spooky” as Strolling with the Spirits gets, and it’s a lot of fun!

There is truly nothing better than standing in the audience, and watching people react to the hard work we and the actors have put in. Seeing people laugh, cry, and hang on the every word of these souls is astounding. No matter how stressful or fraught the process of getting there may be, the payoff of the Stroll is always, always worth it.

Photographs taken during the 2021 Strolling with the Spirits event. Credit: Shelby Davis of SRD Photopgrahy LLC

Part V: It's Never the End

At about 8:15 PM, it’s over.

The actors collect their things, we all say our goodbyes, and everyone goes home. A sense of pride arrives with the successful end of every Strolling season. There is something special about this event. Writing for these incredible figures, casting them, and bringing them to life in this elevated manor feels like just about the best tribute you can give to a person you admire–and we truly do admire all the spirits we choose, for one reason or another.

The Stroll never really ends. Even after one year’s event is over, the wheels start turning: how can next year’s event be better? What can we do differently? How do we bring our Spirits even closer to reflecting reality? Every year, ideally, should feel like an improvement on the last. That is the level of excellence that we strive for with everything we do at the Grout Museum District. That is the level of dedication that these “Spirits” deserve.

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the many-layered process of bringing the Grout Museum’s Strolling with the Spirits event to life. Certainly not every step could be highlighted here, but just like the scripts for the events themselves, this is meant to be a small glimpse into something impossibly complex, many-faceted, and beautiful.

Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you at next year’s Stroll.

About The Author

Shelby is the Media Assistant for the Grout Museum District.