Kent Stever's new book opens the floodgates of memory for long-time Winonans and kick-starts a time machine that sends all readers back to vivid scenes from Winona's past. Mixing extensive research with personal narratives, Stever's "Growing Up on the Mississippi: The 1950s in Winona, Minnesota," offers more than dry history, but the vibrant details of life in another time in the island city.
Stever blows on the coals of warm nostalgia in some pieces, reflecting on his days at Madison Elementary School, for example. "Ah—the mood, the remembrances, the smells, the quiet night sounds, and the goodness of life in West Winona," Stever writes of a walk past the school after many years.
Other pieces bring more shadowed details of Winona's past to light. Intrigue, romance, scandal, violence, and debauchery light up the pages. Stever intermingles his stories of being a taxi cab driver with a history of taxi cabs in Winona. Astonishing tales of late night rides, drunken patrons,
and the brutal hijackings of the "taxi bandit" prick the imagination.
Another chapter may be the authoritative history of professional wrestling in Winona. Again, Stever's boyhood memories of the raucous stands are fleshed out with gleanings from newspaper archives. "Flashing capes and sweaty bodies overcame the darkness of winter nights," Stever writes. "We watched for the 'armpit claw,' someone 'skinning the cat,' the 'cobra clutch,' and the ultimate, 'Tree of Woe.'"
"Growing Up on the Mississippi" is Stever's first book, though he says he has already finished his next one. It began as a Christmas present for his children. He gave them each a bound collection of stories from his childhood "with the assumption that they couldn't all throw them all away at once." These recollections led Stever to scrounge the Winona Newspaper Project, an online repository of local newspaper archives, to learn about the happenings that preceded and succeeded his youth.
Some of his stories were published in the Winona Post over the past years. Positive feedback from those pieces, and pieces for Minnesota Moments Magazine, led him to take the plunge and compile a full-length book.
Stever calls the book "a love affair with the town and growing up." He adds, "I don't care whether I make a dime or not, that's not the point." The point, Stever says, was to have fun and "be a reflection for all kinds of people in Winona.
"These parts and pieces that I do, I'm sort of giving back stuff that nobody else has done," he continues. "It's something that Winona can have as part of their history and it doesn't get lost."
The research was intriguing, Stever says. "It's sort of like doing an algebra project pulling all these pieces out and putting them together." Putting his memories out in the public view was affirming in the sense that people confirmed that Stever was remembering things right, that they share those memories and moments, he explains.
When asked if he notices a difference when he returns to Winona now. Stever says, "I'd ask if there was a cohesiveness to neighborhoods." He recalls all of the children in his neighborhood eating Mulligan Stew at Hobo Days every year. That and other traditions have been lost to time. As a society, Americans have become more separated, Stever says. Stever, a former principal, now resides in Lakeville and still substitute teaches. He draws on that experience in his analysis of modern social history. "A lot of people are searching. When I see those kids before me every single day, they are really searching. They wish somebody would lay it out there for them a little bit. They're not having any real communication, they're not having any real experiences, they're not going out in the woods. I'm trying to reaffirm that it's okay to do that."
Stever will be at The Book Shelf and Blue Heron Cafe in downtown Winona for an author event on Tuesday, July 9, at 7 p.m. "Growing Up on the Mississippi" will be coming to local book stores soon.