Around 1800, a band of Mdewakanton Dakota built a summer village they called Keoxah. They were led by a series of chiefs named Wapasha, so the prairie became known as Wapasha’s Prairie. The village spread out over a large area, with four long houses located next to the river–elevated to avoid getting wet during spring floods–a dozen round huts known as wigwams, and a small patch of cultivated land for growing maize.
Europeans knew at least three Chief Wapashas. The first moved his group to a location along the Upper Iowa River around 1780. His son (who lost an eye as a child during a game of la crosse and styled his hair to resemble an eye patch) moved the group to this prairie around 1807. Wapasha III took over in 1837 and is the one who signed the Treaty of Mendota. Around this same time, other bands in the same Dakota family branch were led by Red Wing and Little Crow. After signing the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, the Dakota moved to reservation land along the Minnesota River.
Steamboat captain Orrin Smith made the first land claim. He arranged transportation for three men to the town site on the steamboat Nominee. Just two years later, the new settlement had grown to 300 residents. By the time Winona incorporated as a city in 1857, it had 3,000 residents and more than 1000 annual steamboat landings. The city is named for Wenonah, who, according to legend, jumped to her death from Maiden Rock Bluff because she was not allowed to marry the man she loved.
From 1870 to 1900, Winona prospered because of transportation (steamboats and railroads), lumber (sawmills), and wheat. In 1875, A.G. Mowbray and L.C. Porter opened a large mill at the foot of Franklin Street that later became Bay State Milling; it is still in business. Winona was also a major supply point for settlers continuing west, so it is not surprising that one of the city’s first millionaires was a wholesale grocer, John Latsch.
Peak immigration to Winona was from 1860 to 1900. The first wave of settlers was mostly riverboat captains and educated folks from the East. Germans were 29% of the population in 1880; they formed self-sustaining neighborhoods where they spoke German, printed German-language newspapers, and generally kept to themselves.
The first Poles arrived in 1855 and were 11% of the population by 1880. Most of the Poles came from Kashubia (a small region near Gdansk and Bytow), speaking a language that may be older than standard Polish but that has essentially disappeared from Poland today. A handful of Winona residents still speak it. In 1880, the Irish were 9% of the population, Norwegians 4%, and Bohemians 4%.
Winona went into a recession after the northern forests were depleted and the lumber mills closed. (The last mill closed in 1909.) One of the new businesses that thrived was the Watkins Medical Company. J.R. Watkins founded the company in nearby Plainview but demand for his new product, Dr. Wards Liniment, outstripped his ability to produce it in his kitchen, so he moved his operation to Winona in 1885. The Watkins Company grew into one of the nation’s largest suppliers of health products, supplements, and flavor additives; you may have used their vanilla. Education has also provided a stable base for the region’s economy. The State Normal School (now Winona State University) began in 1858. The College of St. Teresa was founded in 1907 and began admitting men in 1912.
Like folks in many river towns, Winonans had a live-and-let-live attitude about certain behaviors. The city had an active red light district for generations that was concentrated along 2nd Street between the depot and downtown. It flourished until a raid in December 1942 shut it down, at least for a while; Winona seems to have had active brothels into the 1990s. During Prohibition, local police were not enthusiastic enforcers of the ban on alcohol; the city had at least 200 speakeasies and “blind pigs” (home taverns) and over 500 places to buy liquor. The local liquor trade flourished until federal agents got involved in the late 1920s and began regular raids.
Winona, like many established communities in the US, faced perplexing problems in its older core as new homes and businesses pushed the boundaries further away the center of town. The city fell victim to some of the same misguided urban renewal plans of the early 1970s, razing entire blocks from the historic downtown core. The loss of a chunk of the city’s architectural heritage and the failure of these efforts to deliver the promised growth led to stronger preservation efforts.
Winona today still has a blue collar heart, but it is also a regional commercial hub and a place with an impressive range and depth of cultural opportunities for a town of its size.