Over a century ago, when Winona was a bustling riverport distributing the lumber that would help settle the Midwest and beyond, a legacy was born under the cover of a beached narrow canoe during a summer rainstorm.
John Latsch, photo courtesy of the Winona County Historical Society
He was a loner, a quiet man, an eccentric millionaire who loved nothing more than escaping to the rugged Mississippi backwaters in his little boat. It was a weekend in June, about 1907, and John A. Latsch fetched his canoe from the old Winona Boat Livery at the foot of Lafayette Street, paddled down to Boat House Slough and up to Box Dam. When he reached Camp Glory (now Bass Camp), a summer rain prompted him to pull his boat up to the banks of the river. Latsch flipped over the canoe and began his usual routine of catching up on the week’s newspapers, sipping buttermilk from a glass jar.
Latsch was roused from his resting spot by an angry farmer and his dog, who ordered that the famed Winonan leave his private property at once. Stunned, Latsch pushed off from the Mississippi shore and headed back to town, doused in rainwater and disappointment.
It was a profound happening for Latsch, who would remember that angry farmer for the rest of his life. The next morning, the nature-loving millionaire asked his friend, riverboat Captain Frank Fugina, to purchase the land from the farmer for him, so that the wild riverbanks of the Mississippi would be welcome to everyone. Forever.
And those first few riverbank acres would not be the last that Latsch would purchase for the public to use. He would spend the rest of his life at work, purchasing thousands of acres of property, then deeding them to the state and city for public use. And the idea spread -- sparking a national movement toward preservation through refuges and public lands, years after Winona’s John Latsch decided the world needed more places where boys could play.
In the tender still hours before dawn, Latsch would sometimes slip through the streets of town, tiptoeing up creaky porch steps to leave bags of groceries on the doorsteps of Winonans who had fallen onto hard times.
Son of a Swiss immigrant, Latsch first lived in Dodge, Wis., where his father taught and farmed until an accident left his father crippled, and the family moved to Winona and began a grocery business. He took over the successful company in 1909 when his father died.
Latsch felt a strong need to give back to the town that made his business thrive. “I made all my money in Winona, and I am going to leave it here for the benefit of all the people of the area,” he was known to have said.
And give back he did, from the nearly 20,000 acres of land he donated to the public in Minnesota and Wisconsin, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the Winona General Hospital, local churches and the Margaret Simpson Home and Welfare.
The John A. Latsch State Park on Highway 61 now overlooks the riverbank where the legendary story of Latsch and the angry farmer took place. Much of Whitewater State Park was donated by Latsch, along with Bluffside Park, Prairie Island, Westfield Golf Course, Athletic Park, Gabrych Park, Latsch Island and Aghaming Park. And in Wisconsin, Latsch left Perrot State Park and Merrick State Park to be preserved for public use.
“John Latsch loved children and liked to see children have a good time,” remembered Roy G. Wildgrube in a 1970s interview. Stories of children drowning in impromptu swimming holes around Winona spurred the donation of public bathhouses, along with money to maintain them.
Latsch’s friend Will Dilg, a Chicago businessman who visited Winona on fishing trips, was inspired by the idea of preserving lands and helped spread Latsch’s notion to federal leaders.
When plans to drain and farm the Great Winneshiek Marsh area along the Mississippi north of McGregor, Iowa, surfaced, Dilg gathered 53 other businessmen and formed the Izaak Walton League with the goal of preserving the area. “Get the government to do like that man Latsch did for Winona,” said Dilg. “Turn the whole river bottom lands into a great bass refuge.”
Federal leaders were as inspired by the gifts of Latsch as Dilg had been, and established the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924, 17 years after Latsch first bought land to be preserved for the public’s use.
While Latsch was in favor of the federal refuge, he strongly objected to his gifts being added. He wanted his lands to be open to hunting and fishing, and feared that those using the lands could one day find themselves not at the mercy of an angry farmer and his dog, but shooed away by uniformed federal officers.
Years later, Captain Fugina wrote of what Latsch wanted his gifts to be used for in the book “Lore and Lure of the Scenic Mississippi River.” Latsch wanted the lands “to be left in their wild state so that game and birds would have an unmolested home, and so that the public would be assured of having permanent recreation grounds.” Latsch told Fugina that his dream was for a huge refuge where children could play, animals could live and trees could grow outside of the threat of the lumberjack’s ax.
Latsch by all accounts was a generous and giving man. One elderly Winonan reported after his death in 1934 that he’d left her $90 on her 90th birthday, a woman he’d barely known.
“A giving person, Mr. Latsch was known to be generous with candy and cigars to even the most casual acquaintances,” said friend and employee Christ Severud, the last living of Latsch’s six salesmen.
Although he was one of the richest men in Winona, Latsch never owned a car and was rarely seen riding in one. He also never owned a motorboat, preferring his little canoe to get around.
A hardworking, unassuming and modest man, Latsch never married. He lived at 267 East Seventh Street, but only used a portion of the house, and many of his closest friends never even knew where he lived.
Latsch’s charity extended beyond land gifts and anonymous grocery bags on doorsteps. He donated large amounts of money to the poor during his later years and the Great Depression, even opening up Prairie Island to the poor so they could cut firewood for winter months. He arranged for his grocery business to continue 20 years after his death so that the livelihood of his employees and their families would be protected.
And John Latsch looked to the future of his gifts to ensure that his legacy would continue long after his death. In December 1915, he set up the John Latsch Memorial Board, designated to manage his assets to provide for maintenance of his gifts and lands, and just about any charity the board deemed worthy.
The language in that charter shows that Latsch knew he wouldn’t be able to foresee all that Winona might need after he was gone. It states that income from his buildings in town, or the sale of those buildings and assets, could go to any public library or cemetery, for kindergartens or other schools, playgrounds, charities, in the preservation of fish and wildlife, game and hunting preserves, for the medical treatment of the poor, “or for any public or charitable purpose.” Latsch put his faith in the Memorial Board, indeed, in members not yet born, that his vision would live on, that Winona would remember his dream and keep it alive.
And he has been remembered, even if no one celebrates John Latsch Day (declared by Mayor R.K. Ellings in 1961 as September 24), even if there are no statues or parades. “His memory is cherished by all who knew him,” wrote Captain Fugina, “and by the thousands who recognized the immense service he rendered to the public by donating some of the most beautiful parks in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and by establishing refuges for the preservation of wildlife.”
Late Winonan C.D. Tearse agreed. “Other generous men will come and go, but none will quite fill the unique place made by Mr. Latsch in the hearts of his townspeople.”
Latsch gave us Aghaming Park
Thanks to the gifts of John A. Latsch, Winona is host to more parkland than any other city in Minnesota save Duluth. But one wild strip of land placed in city hands has posed a unique problem for the city for decades, prompting city leaders to take a look back at what John Latsch really wanted for Aghaming Park.
Because Aghaming Park is across the river on Wisconsin land, city police have no authority to enforce rules, write citations or make arrests. To further complicate the matter, the land is considered wetland forest and the Wisconsin DNR won’t permit any road upgrades or land disturbance through the park. Some feel vehicular access is necessary for hunters and fishermen to access certain areas, while others note the destruction caused by vandals mud-bogging through sensitive lands, destroying acres of the park and disrupting endangered wildlife.
The Aghaming Park Advisory Committee has recently been reconstituted to address the problems that have been quieted for years. One option on the table is to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforce rules on the land as a wildlife refuge. But what would that mean for vehicular access and other rules imposed on the land? And what would John A. Latsch do?
The answers aren’t simple. Latsch wanted Aghaming Park to be a place where boys could play -- and have they. Signs of mischief unchecked mar the park today: graffiti so high on the Wagon Bridge supports it looks like scaffolding was used, acres and acres scarred by mud-boggers, gates to protect the Red Shouldered Hawk’s nesting grounds broken over and over again, year after year.
But taking a look back at who John A. Latsch really was could illustrate what he would have wanted, how he might have seen the issues, what we can do to continue the legacy of the Winonan who founded the preservation movement here, right in our own backwaters and backyards.