It was the late 1920s in Winona and teenage Marion Cunningham and her girlfriends had hiked from her home near Cathedral School all the way up to Garvin Heights, where they enjoyed the expansive view of a younger Mississippi River Valley. "That's all we did," said Cunningham, who is now around 100 years old and is one of the last living Winonans who brushed elbows with that grandfather of Winona parkland, John Latsch, as she passed him on the trail. "That's all we could do is go hiking." Girls were not allowed to wear pants or ride bikes back then. "I wanted to bike so badly," she recalled. Her parents forbade it, though, "so I was always in the hills," she said. "I would see Johnny Latsch a lot."
Cunningham and Latsch crossed paths and said "hello" as she walked to school and he went to work. In the afternoons and on weekends, she would run into him in the wooded bluffs. On one day, Cunningham and her girlfriends were descending Garvin Heights "the hard way," when Latsch came down the trail after them. When he caught up to them he held out his hand and asked if any of them was missing something. Cunningham had not even noticed it, but her watch had slipped off on the steep descent. She took it from Latsch's outstretched hand and thanked him. He strode off into the woods.
Hiking was a very common pastime for Winona children at the time, but Cunningham said she thought it was unusual for a grown man to spend so much time hiking. "That was his pleasure, though, being in the hills," she said. Everyone in town knew Latsch. "He was just a character a person would get to know," she explained.
Pauline Richter, 107, was also a young woman in those days. All of the youth in Winona hiked in the bluffs — at Garvin Heights, Star Bluff, the caves — and went swimming at the Latsch Island bathhouse, a grand changing house at the beach. Latsch secured the island as a city park and financed the bathhouse after being heartbroken when a Winona child who drowned in the river. Latsch's beach had a cordoned swimming area and lifeguards.
"I swam there every day," Richter said. As a girl, she would go early in the morning, come home for lunch, and go back for the whole afternoon. So did nearly every kid in town from the time the beach opened in spring until the end of the summer, she said. When the beach was closed she would go hiking. "I climbed those hills over and over and over again. I was kind of brought up on that thing," she said. Latsch also donated part of the bluffs south of Lake Winona.
The bluffs and the Latsch beach would sometimes be a place for high school mischief, Richter said. At the island, "Boys and girls would go over [to the island] when they were courting. They went over there and nobody would bother them." She added, "Then the life guards would chase them away because they were causing too much trouble."
She also noted that "a lot of people would come and have parties [in the bluffs]. You know, sandwiches and stuff. That was a party." The authorities did not want youths having bonfires or parties in the bluffs, but Richter said she and the young Winonans would do so anyway. "They didn't want us to set anything on fire over there because people were starting to build on the hill and they wanted that to continue. So that kind of spoiled it for us." She explained that many of the bluffside houses were owned by "monied people" who only lived there in the summer. "We got to know when people would be there, and when they weren't we would do what we wanted to."
Richter's husband was a bookkeeper for Latsch's wholesale grocery. "They couldn't get along without him," Richter said of her husband's bookkeeping. "They had to have him every day. But that's how it was in those days; you worked all the time, or you didn't work."
When he was not crafting jewelry, Richter's father helped supervise children at the beach, and during the many years in which Latsch bought up wild river lands and bluffs and donated them to the public, her father conferred with Latsch. "My dad would tell him, this piece won't be good for this, but you could do this with it," she explained. Latsch's donation streak "was quite a deal," she recalled. "Of course I was the first one to know what they were going to do," she said, smiling.
All told, Latsch donated thousands of acres of bluffside parks, river lands, and numerous properties throughout the city, dedicating them as places for Winonans to paddle, hike, and have fun.