The Winona County Historical Society’s (WCHS) historic Bunnell House opens for the season this weekend. The house will be open from June 1 through August on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 1-4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students, and free for WCHS members and children ages seven and younger.
In the late 1840s, the well-known Dakota Chief Wapasha granted permission to fur trader, Willard Bunnell, to build a cabin on Dakota land at what is now Homer. Within a few years with the Mendota Treaty and flood of Euro-American settlement, Bunnell built another, much finer, home nearby to house his wife, Matilda, and family — the present-day Bunnell House. An outstanding example of rural Gothic architecture, the home is built of northern white pine, encompassing the historical period during which Native American canoes gave way to steamboats along this stretch of the mighty Mississippi River.
Willard Bunnell was born in Homer, N.Y., in 1814, the son of a successful doctor. According to his brother Lafayette, Willard ran away from home at age 10 and became a cabin boy on a steamboat, only to be retrieved by his father after a short time. He ran away again and this time got work on a steamship captained by a friend of his father. Willard rejoined his family in 1837 after they had moved to Detroit five years earlier. That same year he married Matilda Desnoyer, the daughter of a fur trader, and relocated to Northeast Wisconsin, where he worked as a fur trader as well.
Willard suffered from tuberculosis and in 1841 sent for Lafayette to come and help him move west and up the Mississippi River to what he believed would be a dryer climate. It was also away from the lawmen looking for him after a court case in which Willard was involved over some missing silver coins. He traded furs as he and Lafayette explored the Mississippi River Valley in search of a suitable place to settle. Matilda stayed at a cabin they had built near Trempealeau while Willard and Lafayette were exploring across the river. Once the house had been built and the family had settled in, Willard had a good relationship with Chief Wapasha II and the Dakota camp where Winona is today, and continued to trade with the local Native Americans as well as making a decent business out of selling chopped wood to fuel the steamboats traveling up and down the river.
Learn more about the Bunnells, Willard’s eccentric brother, and the unique house that was home to Winona County’s first Euro-American settlers.
Find more and plan your visit at winonahistory.org or call 507-454-2723.