The City of Winona [†] is located west of the Mississippi River on the southern end of the Wabasha Prairie. This treeless prairie possessed the natural characteristics that made it an ideal location for Native American and, later, Euro-American settlement. The land around the plain was fertile, making it excellent for agriculture. The Mississippi River provided easy access to all villages, cities and ports along the River's path. The readily available transportation provided by the Mississippi River had a distinct effect on the growth and development of Winona.
The first Euro-Americans to visit the site of present-day Winona did not arrive until the 1800's. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened up new land to the United States. This new land was unexplored and the United States Government appointed individuals to investigate these new territories. Federal appointee Zebulon Pike led a group to the area of Winona in 1805. This expedition was followed in 1817 by Stephen Long, who came to Minnesota to begin topographical studies of the area.
Territorial legislation of 1851 organized the area known as Wabasha Prairie into Wabasha County. The area included in this county was extremely large, and the area has since been divided into six different counties. The Euro-American population of Wabasha County in 1851 numbered only two, and both were fur traders, Nathan Brown and W.B. Bunnell. The first signs of a village developing on the Wabasha prairie occurred in 1852. Land seekers began to arrive in the area and established claims. In 1852, J. Denman erected a frame house, not extant, on the corner of present-day Winona's Lafayette and Second streets.
The Village of Winona was platted in 1852 and was within the County of Wabasha, but the real beginnings of Winona can be attributed to Orrin Smith. Captain Smith was a river boat captain who saw the flat prairie as a potential site for landing and firewood refueling. In 1851 Captain Smith and Erwin Johnson established a claim and built a small shanty. The year of 1853 was one of notable importance, because the new village adopted the name of Winona.
Winona continued to grow as settlers began to pour into the area. In the fall of 1854 a land office was established and became operational in the spring of 1855. The government at this time opened up several townships and settlers claimed land under the Pre-emption Act of 1841, which allowed people to legalize their claim. The population of Winona at the end of 1855 numbered 815 people and 670 buildings.
In 1857 the village of Winona incorporated. At this time, Winona, with a population of around three thousand, was the third largest city in the state of Minnesota. The Mississippi River was the key to the development of Winona. The life of the town came from the wharf. A large number of river boats visited Winona on a regular basis. The river boats were the lifeline of small communities along the Mississippi River. In 1856 over three thousand river boats stopped at the Winona levee. The river boats refueled with firewood, unloaded supplies and brought news from around the world. The town of Winona would not have been able to survive without the Mississippi River and the steamboats that travelled it. During the 1850's, Winona grew at an astonishing rate. The lumber industry brought wealth and prosperity to the community. From 1855 to 1861 the population of Winona grew from 815 to 2.464 residents. The lumber industry was a main contributor to the development of Winona. Western expansion created a demand for lumber for the construction of homes on the expanding frontier. With the readily available supply of timber in the Winona area and the Mississippi River as its transportation network, Winona turned into a lumber boom town. Grain production also contributed to Winona's growth. Winona was a key port for the transportation of grain from Minnesota farmland to cities to the south. By the 1870's, the town of Winona become the fourth largest grain shipping port in the nation.
The growth of Winona's lumber and grain shipping interests caused Winona to expand as a community. In September of 1854 the first of Winona's weekly newspapers, the "Argus" was published. The Winona Normal School, the first teacher training institution west of the Mississippi River, opened in 1860. The Winona and St. Petersburg Railroad began construction in 1862, and both the Winona High School and the Philharmonic Hall were constructed in 1866. The growth of Winona suffered a setback in July of 1862 when a fire broke out in the downtown area. The total amount of damage done to the commercial district was over $300,000. The growth of Winona was hindered only briefly by the fire. The population of Winona was around 4,500 in 1864 and over $100,000 was spent on the construction of new buildings.
Winona had reached its height of prosperity in 1892 when the lumber industry began its rapid decline. During the 1850's it was believed that there was an endless supply of timber in the area, however this belief was proved to be wrong. The lumber industry had over-exploited its resources, greatly reducing the forests of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1895 the Youmans-Hodgins Lumber Company of Winona ended its operations. Winona, by the turn of the century, entered into a period of economic stagnation.
The City of Winona faced new dilemmas with the decline of the lumber industry and a significant decline in river boat traffic by the turn of the century. To maintain its economy, Winona turned its focus on small industry with more reliance on the railroad to distribute products. The railway that followed the banks of the river still ran through the city. The railroad also provided a vital link to the west through South Dakota.
Although the wealth of the lumber industry vanished along with the timber, Winona not only survived, it flourished. By the early 1900's Winona had established itself as a major export center of grain. Winona also developed other industries which helped the city cope with the loss of the lumber industry. The Board of Trade worked hard to attract new businesses to Winona in order to fill the gap left by the lumber industry. Flour mills began to use electrical power instead of burning wood, the Winona Wagon Company was still in operation, as well as the Schroth-Aherns Millwork company. The presence of agriculture in the area contributed to the stability of Winona's economy. The Minnesota Harness Factory and the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Company each continued to produce finished products. Smaller industries such as Conrad Fur, Interstate Packing and Winona Candy also developed in Winona.
The social structure of Winona was based around strong German and Polish ethnic groups. The German population had strong ethnic ties that were apparent in the fact that the German community had their own banks and newspapers. In 1880 Germans made up 29% of the city's population and were commonly living in the Third and Fourth wards. The Polish population, like the Germans, had their own churches and newspaper. In 1880, the Polish community comprised 11 % of the city's population and most Poles lived in the Forth Ward. However, the largest ethnic group living in Winona prior to 1900 were considered Yankee or Old Stock, coming to Winona from New England and Eastern Canada. In 1860 there were 1,150 New England born residents living in Winona, primarily in the First and Second wards.
Higher education has been a driving factor in the development and history of Winona. The city of Winona has been the home of four post secondary education institutions. These include the Winona Normal School, which is presently Winona State University, Saint Mary's University, the now closed College of Saint Theresa's and MN State/SE Technical College. The colleges have helped Winona develop as a center for education and the arts in Southeastern Minnesota. The community has supported its schools by residents serving as regents and participating in fundraising. The colleges have also given back to the city by educating and employing a large number of Winona's residents.
Winona throughout its history has been a city with a focus on growth and development. In its beginnings the village and its river port acted as a gateway to greater Minnesota. The explosion of logging brought prosperity in the form of money, people, and industry to the village of Winona. Winona's location was vital to the transport of lumber on the Mississippi, and grain shipping on the railroad lines that ran to St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago. At the turn of the century, the lumber industry dramatically declined, yet Winona was able to adjust to the fluctuations in its economy because of its diverse industrial and manufacturing businesses. The residents of Winona have always worked towards establishing the city as an agricultural and commercial center. Winona's commercial community has provided the city with a stable economy that has been able to adapt to changing markets and it will continue to adapt in the future.
Adapted from: Winona Heritage Preservation Committee, Myron White, City of Winona, Development Coordinator, Proposed Windom Park Historic District (PDF), www.cityofwinona.com, accessed October 2021.
Nearby Towns: Fountain City •