Thomas Carlyle once said, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” It is depicted in the faces of those who came before us. It is in the writings of Zebulon M. Pike, who first documented his 1805 arrival in what would later become Winona. It is in engravings depicting Native American life before the settlers arrived. It is surveyor John Ball’s plat of the town that details the first public square and riverfront. History is in the more than 200 vintage photographs carefully selected by Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) archivist Walt Bennick and put into a newly released book that tell the story of who and what shaped Winona.
Part of Arcadia Publishing’s popular “Images of America” series, Bennick’s book, simply titled “Winona,” is a look at historical images that depict how education, medicine, entertainment, and war affected Winonans from the city’s earliest days to the end of the 20th century.
Bennick was approached by WCHS Executive Director Mark Peterson last year about the project and began working on it immediately. From October 2011 to April 2012, Bennick scoured the archives looking for the perfect photos.
“I had looked over some of the previous ‘table-top books’ that used our photos and attempted to work with topics not previously used,” Bennick said. “I determined the ten topics I wanted to deal with and found photos that would fit the bill.”
Bennick chose to enlighten readers on periods in Winona’s history that deal with “Crossing the Great River,” “Getting Around Town,” and “Leaders of Industry and Commerce.”
The chapter that resonated most with him was the chapter the depicted the initial establishment of hospitals in Winona.
“Since my wife had been a nurse with Winona Health for about 36 years, and I had also worked for Winona Health for a number of years, plus being actively involved with the Society’s cemetery walk, I found the chapter entitled ‘Health and Sickness, Hospitals and Cemeteries’ most interesting.”
The 11-page chapter documents the evolution of medicine from the first hospital, erected in 1898, to the building of Community Memorial Hospital, which is now Winona Health, in 1962.
The pictorial pays homage to the men who fought bravely together in the numerous wars the United States has fought since the late 1800s. A young Pfc. Paul P. Drwall is pictured in his Army uniform after he signed up for the draft in 1942, at just 23 years old.
In another photograph, the Burlington Railroad Swing Bridge is pictured going up in flames during the winter of 1989 after several boys accidentally set it on fire.
“I would like my readers to become more acquainted with some lesser-known facts about Winona’s history,” Bennick said. “That’s why I tended to stay away from some of the more common themes of Winona’s past.”
A longtime Winona resident, Bennick is a well-known face in the WCHS archives. His vast knowledge of everything Winona is astounding. Even though he is not originally from the area, it’s safe to say he is an expert on the life of Winona.
“I learned to appreciate the history of the city, since I have been living here for more than 40 years and have been studying Winona’s history through my work at the History Center,” he said.
Bennick admitted he felt a sense of nostalgia while delving through the thousands of old photographs that are hidden away in the archives. He said the book was made possible by those who, instead of throwing their old pictures away, donated them to the WCHS.
“I am hoping that this book will inspire more of Winona’s citizens to learn more about the history of their fair city and to keep the WCHS in mind as they look at discarding some of their ‘old stuff’ that may have some historic significance.”
“Winona” will be available for purchase on October 15, a date that marks the 161st anniversary of the first land claim, made in 1851 by Erwin H. Johnson, on behalf of Winona’s founder, Captain Orrin T. Smith.
The book will be available at local bookstores, independent retailers, online and through Arcadia Publishing for $21.99. Bennick will be signing books at the Voices from the Past: Woodlawn Cemetery Discovery Walk, Woodlawn Cemetery, off Highway 61 (Huff Street Intersection) on October 13 and 14, from noon to 3 p.m. both days.