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The legend of Latsch (09/22/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo courtesy of Winona County Historical Society
      A nurse attended the aging John A. Latsch outside Winona General Hospita

John A. Latsch Day Tuesday

The flash of ducks' wings as they rise from the marshlands, the shadows of fish considering bait, the sudden stillness of a resting dragonfly, the inexorable flow of a great river these small moments of connection to the nonhuman world enchant us as children and hold a spell-like power over many until their final days.

It is not by chance that the Winona area has so many places to enjoy the Mississippi River valley. These getaways have been maintained by the dedication of many, but their creation can largely be traced back to one man: John A. Latsch.

Latsch was born in 1861, and grew up in an era when steam-powered packet boats plied mail routes up and down the river and when lumber mills shrieked and whined in the island city. Latsch inherited his father's wholesale grocery concern and was dedicated to the business, but he never treated himself to its profits. He "dressed simply and ate sparingly," an obituary recalled. Even as he became a distinguished Winona city leader, the one-time mayor shunned automobiles, wine, and socialites. Instead he escaped to the river.

If the bachelor Latsch was married to his business, the river was his true love. He "clung to his little Indian canoe and in it explored the nooks and inlets along the river, camped and rested under the trees he loved so much," wrote his friend, riverboat Captain Frank Fugina. From his youth until shortly before his death, Latsch spent his free moments paddling deep into the river's tangled backwaters.

On one such excursion in 1907, Latsch pulled his canoe up on the river's bank to seek shelter from a incoming thunderstorm, when he was greeted by an angry landowner. This river bank is mine, the landowner told him, and trespassers are not treated kindly. Latsch backed away and launched his canoe in the pouring rain.

What a shame that enjoying the river would be the sole right of the land-rich few, the rain-soaked Latsch thought. Unlike other frustrated adventurers, Latsch was uniquely positioned to do something about it. He promptly bought out the agitated landowner and began buying up every piece of river land and bluffside he could and donating them for public enjoyment.

"We all have those kind of moments," when fate takes us in a powerful new direction, said sculptor Lynette Power. The legendary run-in that sparked Latsch's philanthropy inspired Power's bronze-cast sculpture, "Meeting with Destiny."

"We can appreciate the beauty in this area predominantly because of John Latsch," said Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. "The foresight of somebody doing that for the public good is just amazing."

John Muir preceded Latsch as a conservation philanthropist, but both men wondered at nature and saw the value of preserving that experience for future generations, said Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge Visitors Services Manager Cindy Samples.

Latsch's land gifts inspired the creation of the refuge, Peterson noted. "The river would certainly be a different spot if it weren't for the wildlife refuge, state parks, and Latsch land," Samples commented. "Being able to have those places has helped me get better," said Samples, who is recovering from an injury. "It's healing in many ways."

The other Latsch

Mr. Latsch is primarily remembered as a nature-loving donor of river lands, but there is far more to his legacy. He gave profusely to the cause of feeding and giving warm clothing to Winona's poor. A downtown building donated by Latsch held the "City Poor Department headquarters." He funded much of the city's welfare programs, and many of the less fortunate heated their homes with firewood cut from Prairie Island, according to his Winona Republican-Herald obituary for Latsch.

"There were seventeen millionaires in Winona, and John Latsch gave more than all the rest put together," Winonan Roy Wildegrube told Latsch historian Roger Hannon of the grocer's outstanding generosity.

Funded by the rent of buildings given by Latsch, the members of the Latsch Memorial Board continue their founder's generosity with gifts to parks and local charities. "All these many years later he's still supporting this community," Peterson said. Latsch was a pioneer in endowment funds and legacy gifts, Peterson added.

Latsch's gifts are partially responsible for Winona's economic success, as well. The municipal airport and many of the acres on the East End that are now home to industrial businesses were gifts to the city from the grocer. He also donated the St. Charles Street riverfront for use as a river terminal, according to the Winona Republican-Herald. By the time he died, Latsch's gifts had more than doubled the size of the city, according to a 1954 report, the impact of which is staggering to imagine.

"I don't think we'll ever know the real extent of John Latsch's generosity," Peterson stated. Among all the fine print of Latsch's will, for example, is a clause stating that none of his grocery employees could be laid off for 20 years after his death, Peterson recalled.

"If there's anybody who has left a lasting legacy in this community, it's John Latsch," Peterson continued. "He was a quiet guy who did this without a lot of fanfare."

Since Mayor R.K. Ellings declared it John Latsch Day in 1961, Winonans take time to enjoy Latsch's many gifts and remember the man behind them on September 24. 


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