by Frances Edstrom
Bill Wieczorek stopped by the other day, to show me a copy of an old newspaper article, courtesy of Jim Galewski. The headline is “Landmark Illuminated.” I had always thought that lighting Sugar Loaf was a relatively new effort, but not so.
The article showed a photo of Bill, who at the time worked at Northern States Power (NSP) and was on the Chamber of Commerce Tourist Committee, Congressman Al Quie, Richard Coleman, NSP lighting representative, and Gary Nelson, of the Winona Jaycees. The year was 1965, and they were standing in front of one of three lighting installations that illuminated the Winona landmark.
“The handiwork of man and nature is outlined against the dark sky and can be viewed for some miles because three sides of the rock have been illuminated,” the article read. I have heard the story of how Sugar Loaf came to be many times, and Bill’s visit reminded me that not everyone knows that story.
It begins with the legend of “Wapahsha’s Cap.” Before it became Sugar Loaf —due to quarrying —the bluff was rounded and looked like a cap, with no trees on top. According to Dakota stories, there was dissension among the people; two leaders, “the great Red Wing” and “the noble Wapahsha” became involved, each commanding a following. At the time, they were living near what is now Red Wing, Minn.
But before a battle between the sides could commence, Wapahsha waved his red cap in the air, and demanded silence from the rowdy crowd. He told those who would fight to stop their quarreling, and threw his totem — the red cap — into the air. It was suddenly taken by a whirlwind. At the same time, there was a shaking of the earth, and the huge bluff where the Dakota buried their dead split in two. A group was sent downriver to seek out the half that disappeared, and discovered the bluff we know as Sugar Loaf, which they recognized as the cap of their leader, turned into stone. They moved their encampment, with Wapahsha as their chief, to the area. The bluff remaining in Red Wing is now known as Barn Bluff.
When settlers arrived here, and built the rivertown that they named, eventually, Winona, a quarry operation began on Wapahsha’s cap. Limestone for the growing river town’s sidewalks and buildings came from the outcropping. The Winona Post building, built in 1865, may well feature pieces of stone from that quarry.
The quarrying activity left the bluff with its distinctive formation. At the time, sugar wasn’t sold loose in bags, but rather in hard conical shapes from which the user chipped pieces with clippers. They were called sugarloaves. Apparently, to the Winona populace, what was left of the bluff looked like a sugarloaf, and that’s what they called the hill.
Quarrying at the bluff, then owned by the O’Dea family, stopped in 1887, and the bluff subsequently went through several owners. At one point, it was thought that quarrying may begin again on the hill, and people became worried that their historic landmark could disappear. In 1948, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Republic (DAR) began an effort to buy the hill and donate it to the city. After two years of red tape was unraveled, the city finally took ownership of the landmark in 1950.
Fifteen years later, through the efforts of Bill Wieczorek and the other Winonans, the iconic hill was illuminated. The city must have ceased lighting Sugar Loaf at some point, and now, thanks to donors, it is lighted once again.