Winona summers would be a lot less fun if it were not for John Latsch. Whether you like to fish, paddle, hike, camp, go to the pool, motorboat, mountain bike, or play baseball or golf, Winonans have one man to thank for much of the profusion of recreational opportunities that surround the island city. Latsch donated the land that now makes up state parks up and down the river, Aghaming Park, ballfields on the East End, the Westfield Golf Course, the St. Charles Street boat landing, and many other city and state parks and recreational facilities.
Rotarians urge their members to plant trees whose shade they will never live to sit beneath. "That is philanthropy at its most pure, and that is John Latsch at his most pure," said Winona Post Publisher Patrick Marek, explaining the premise for the newspaper's upcoming youth essay contest: the "Legacy of Latsch."
In a single, life-altering moment, Latsch was inspired to give away much of his wealth to preserve many, many trees for future generations to sit under. A grocery store owner in early 20th century Winona, Latsch spent nearly every weekend on the river. He would set out in his canoe with nothing but his dog, a few newspapers, and his go-to snack: crackers and buttermilk. On one such outing, Latsch was caught in a storm. He landed on an overgrown stretch of shoreline and hunched beneath the shelter of his overturned canoe. Then suddenly a farmer banged on the side of Latsch's canoe and yelled for Latsch to get off the farmer's land. Latsch paddled back to Winona in the rain, soggy and discouraged. Somewhere in his mind an idea was forming that would define his life, and the region.
The next day, Latsch began purchasing land along the rivers and bluffs of the Winona area and donating them for the public to enjoy forever. By the time he passed away, Latsch had donated thousands of acres of parks and natural areas where anyone in a canoe — or a new Trek bicycle — could rest without fear.
"Latsch had a huge impact and he was the most humble man that drew breath," explained Marek, reflecting that Latsch would likely hate the weeklong celebration planned in his honor from July 21 to 26.
Latsch gifts are the reason people love Winona, Marek said. The beautiful outdoors and wonderful recreation opportunities are what draw people to the island city and convince them to stay, he said. "It's all because of this guy from years and years ago who planted the tree he never got to sit under," Marek added.
Winona youth are invited to learn about John Latsch and earn a chance to win a new Trek bicycle by entering the Winona Post's "Legacy of Latsch" Youth Essay Contest. Area children and teenagers 17 years old or younger can submit essays under 500 words by Wednesday July 16. The winning essay will be read at the "Life and Legacy of Latsch" event at the Winona County History Center on Thursday, July 24.
"If you write an essay in school, you might get a grade. If you write an essay for this contest, you might win a Trek bike," Marek advised local youth.
Submissions may be mailed to "Legacy of Latsch" Youth Essay Contest, C/O The Winona Post, P.O. Box 27, Winona, Minn., 55987, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Latsch and this month's weeklong celebration of the man, visit winonapost.com.