Photo by Sarah Squires
WCHC archivist Marianne Mastenbrook looks over an artist's rendition of Winona's landscape in the city's early years.
Winona is one of the most culturally and historically rich towns within the entire Midwest. Settled in 1851 upon the well-established backbone of the eastern Sioux Native Americans, Winona was named after Princess We-Noh-Nah. Royalty and historic significance was evident in the town from the start.
Nestled in bluff country along the banks of the Mississippi River, Winona quickly became a booming town full of life, culture, and enduring prosperity. Now, a growing city home to more than 27,000 permanent residents, 14,000 college students at two universities, and a spectacularly preserved downtown, Winona has withstood the test of time.
But, this captivating collection of information wasn’t compiled without the tedious work of the dedicated archivists at the Winona County History Center’s (WCHC) Laird Lucas Library and Archives. Recognized across the state as one of the “finest local archives,” it holds the key to comprehensive information relating to everything Winona County.
Now in his 11th year as an archivist at WCHC, Walt Bennick, along with archivist Marianne Mastenbrook and curator Jodi Brom, has helped make the archive one of the most celebrated places in Minnesota history.
“We are very good at what we do,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have all the items we do and we have very good members that help keep us going.”
Below the exhibits and displays in the main room at the WCHC, lies the intriguing library and archive dedicated to those who helped shape Winona. Two tables in a room filled with polished wood cabinets, a microfilm viewer and portrait or two Winonans from the past is all that is seen at first glance. But, don’t be fooled by the quaint front room. The back opens up into a massive, multi-room storage facility holding what seems to be Winona’s entire history.
Behind the information desk is a set of several moveable cabinets that house college year books dating back to 1910, documents relating to the state, regional and local history, Winona commerce journals, books written by local authors and even love letters.
“A lot of these kinds of sentimental items we inherited,” Bennick said.
A file on the top shelf of a cabinet is labeled with two last names, Ruppert and Ward. The file is marked love letters, and dates back to the Civil War.
Bennick said Ruppert was a Civil War vet who was corresponding with his girlfriend, Ward. She was a student at the College of Saint Teresa, the Catholic women’s college, while he studied at Saint Mary’s University. After reading through the letters, Bennick said Ward became “too clingy and demanding.”
“He had to cut her off,” Bennick joked.
He said the two never married and Ward moved east while Ruppert moved out west.
The archive also holds original marriage licenses dating back to 1854, just three years after the town was officially settled. Thousands of photos of steamboats and streetcars show in great detail the technology of the 1800s. Family photo albums are available and compiled according to household names. And the detailed genealogies and biographies of residents are kept close by.
“Family history is one of the most frequent things people come searching for,” Bennick said. “I’ve had people call from as far away as Europe looking for things.”
Mastenbrook said she couldn’t even guess as to how many people and family genealogies are kept in the six full filing cabinets.
“Some genealogies go way, way back to when they first came,” she said. “And, we’ve got all the Winona County history books and of course those go back to the 1880s.”
One family famously known in the area around the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the Huntleys. Ben Huntley was a photographer while his wife, Myrtle, was a stunningly beautiful model and early-film Vaudeville actress. Known as local Hollywood, the Huntleys produced creative flyers and portraits to advertise for their shows.
In the archive, the Huntleys are preserved through family and personal portraits, live-action shots from Myrtle’s days as an actress, and advertisements from their shows.
Through each door and each room, the archive boasts rich history and exceptionally preserved materials that add to the luster of Winona’s culture. But, in a back room Bennick calls the vault are the more tangible, 3-dimensional items that bring the bygone days to life.
An inherited collection of white crystal glassware fills a metal cabinet. Several clothing racks hang fur coats, petticoats and ball gowns. And boxes of fabric and dress patterns and poster-size photographs are neatly laid on shelves.
Mostly overflow materials, Bennick says the vault is full of larger items in need of more containment space.
Some of the dresses housed in this vault are currently being used in the most recent exhibit at the WCHC called “Instruments of Fashion.”
Mastenbrook said the archive often gets phone calls from people who have compiled local genealogies for future research and occasionally gets the opportunity to see possible museum submissions from people in the area.
The basement archive is a testament to the men and women who literally built this town from the ground up. Nearly every photo they took, document they signed, newspaper they read, or article of clothing they wore is preserved within the archive. It offers researchers a place to discover a vibrant history. It lets residents see what their block looked like when the town first began. And it allows people to trace their family genealogies back more than one hundred years to find out more about where they came from.
“We have so many people asking for records on such and such a person,” Mastenbrook said. “We get usual requests for these items and we do our very best to help them find what they are looking for.”
The archive is open to the public for a $5 fee, but is free to historical society members and students conducting research.
For more information regarding archivist research visit the Winona County Historical Society website.