Wapasha’s Prairie, which would eventually become the city of Winona, was home to the Mdewakantonwan Dakota. Chief Wapasha’s tribe believed they were the most important of all the Dakota because they lived “precisely over the centre of the earth, [therefore] they occup[ied] the gate that open[ed] to the western world.” Steamboat Captain Orrin Smith observed this as he passed by Wapasha’s Prairie on his runs to and from Galena, IL, and Fort Snelling, MN. Seeing a perfect opportunity and place to establish a new community, Smith landed three of his men in 1851 to stake claim. Settlers came in droves and the Native Americans were moved out by the Mendota Treaty in 1853.
It only took a couple years for the river town to grow to 300 people. Within the next decade, Winona had a population of 5,000. Wheat became the number-one cash crop in the area, eventually leading Winona to become part of the country’s booming Wheat Belt in the Midwest. The lumber industry also grew Winona’s population and its industrial wealth. Railroads were constructed to improve access to commerce. In 1862, the Winona & St. Peter Railroad, now known as the DM&E, was completed. River traffic brought over 1,300 steamboats a year into Winona’s port. (Remember, about six months out of the year the river was frozen shut!) During this time, Winona could claim the most millionaires per capita in the country. During the closing decades of the 19th century and well into the first decades of the 20th, Winona became an important commercial, industrial and transportation center in southeastern Minnesota.
As Winona entered the 20th century, the population leveled off due to the lumber mills closing, but commerce continued to thrive. It was clear that Winona needed a chamber of commerce, so the Winona Merchant’s and Business Men’s Association and the Winona Board of Trade combined in 1912 to form the Winona Association of Commerce. The first board of directors and committee chairs consisted of well known names like Laird, Neville, Garvin and Lucas, who were later joined by Watkins, Pelzer, Choate and Sheehan – among many others.
As the lumber industry moved to more forests out west, other industries took their place throughout the mid-20th century. Winona is home to the largest music publisher, Hal Leonard; the world-renowned sweaters of Knitcraft; the Watkins Company; Fastenal; Coda Bow; Peerless Chain; We-no-nah Canoe; and many other successful homegrown businesses.
Today, Winona continues to be a progressive force along the upper Mississippi River. Known for its beautiful architecture, stained glass and cultural heritage, Winona celebrates its past with a number of seasonal events, historical attractions and organizations as well as an appreciation for the arts.