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Why is sign different now? (06/05/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

I like the Steamboat directional sign at Huff and Hwy. 61. It does a couple of things really well. It sets our presence on Hwy. 61 apart from other cities whose highways are lined with similar car dealerships, big box stores and motels. And it also indicates to travelers that somewhere in the direction the sign points there must be a body of water big enough to float a steamboat, and perhaps even a downtown business district and the quintessential rivertown of the era of steamboats.

But I have to agree with those who say it sorely needs some…something.

Bill Christenson brought me a photo of the original steamboat replica (it can be seen on page 5A today), which his dad built and which was used as a parade float representing Winona during the state centennial celebrations of 1958. They took it to parades all over the region that year. It was wooden, 26 feet long, eight feet wide, and STEAMER WINONA was painted on the stern.

After the centennial year was past, in 1959 the replica was mounted on four telephone poles 8 feet above the ground at Huff and Hwy. 61 to be used as a directional sign. It was erected in September of 1959, and lighted from dusk to midnight on both sides. Beneath the replica hung a sign that indicated with a directional arrow that Downtown Winona was thataway. The cost of the project was paid for by the Winona Chamber of Commerce, the Winona County Statehood Centennial Committee and the Hotel Winona.

Incidentally, the Steamer Julius C. Wilkie Steamboat Museum was dedicated at the Levee on August 30, 1959. For those who don’t know, the boat, a real steam powered packet boat, was purchased by the Winona County Historical Society and its director Louis Younger in 1957 and in the intervening two years the museum was installed and the boat overhauled to look like a cute little passenger steamboat.

But when the replica directional sign on Huff and Hwy. 61 first went up, there was no mention of the Julius C. Wilkie; it was strictly a sign to show travelers the way to downtown Winona.

I went down to Huff St. with the photo, and realized that the replica that is there now is not the same as the one originally put up by the Centennial committee. I had heard that somehow the Schwab company was involved in building the replica sign, but am not sure now if that was the one there now, mounted on one big pillar, or the original. In any case, for quite a while the replica sign was the responsibility of the Chamber of Commerce and the city. According to an April 6, 1976, article in the Winona Daily News, the city renewed its agreement with the Chamber which was that the city would take care of the structure itself, while the Chamber would take care of the landscaping. I do remember that not too long ago (it seems!) there was foliage at the base of the sign. I can’t remember when we got the ugly bare base we have now.

My guess is that the reference to the Julius Wilkie Steamboat that is now painted on the replica sign might have appeared after the original Steamer Wilkie burned while being moved to make way for the permanent dike and the ill-advised move was made by local movers and shakers to build the late lamented Julius C. Wilkie Steamboat Center at the foot of Main Street in the early 1980s.

If phone calls we’ve gotten are any indication, people have an interest in preserving the steamboat sign, and others have offered to take it if the city doesn’t want it. The city has asked for proposals for either fixing it or demolishing it. I hope the city fixes it. It doesn’t have to say Julius C. Wilkie on it at all, and it’s silly to think that just because you have a steamboat sign people will think they’ll see a steamboat if they follow the sign. I’ve been to northern Minnesota many times and have seen the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and never expected I was going to see old Paul in person.

I’d love to know more about the history of the steamboat sign, and intend next week to visit the archives at the Winona County History Center, where Marianne Mastenbrook says they have a file on the sign. But what I’d really like is to hear from people who know the history and why the original steamboat sign is so different from the one that is there now. I can be reached by e-mail at winpost@winonapost.com, or you can send a note to me at Box 27, Winona, MN 55987. 


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