Winona is through and through a city shaped by the Mississippi River and its steamboats. When immigrant settlers first arrived in 1851, they arrived by steamboat. Steamboats going up and down the Mississippi brought jobs, supplies, and opportunities to Winona. 

While Winona no longer relies on steamboats, the city continues to honor its roots, primarily with Steamboat Days, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. But how did the festival first start?

Steamboat Days began in 1948 as a continuation of previous celebrations held in honor of the Mississippi River workers, according to Steamboat Days Harbormaster Fred Benning.

Benning has served on the festival board, helping to organize the event, for years. He was capped as Harbormaster due to his continued support of Steamboat Days since its inception. “I’d always come home for Steamboat Days,” he said. “I have been at every single Steamboat Days since the start in 1948. I was three years old when I went to the first Steamboat Days.”

Since its inception, Steamboat Days has focused on celebrating what makes Winona a river city.  “This is about community, knowing who we are as a community,” Steamboat Days Committee President Jeremy Graves said.

Steamboat Days has evolved over the years, eventually creating its own identity. In 1948, the celebration focused heavily on celebrating Winona’s river activities.

Steamboat Days has also seen many different types of activities and events come and go over the decades, such as boat racing (featuring powerboats, canoes, and even vessels crafted from milk cartons), the Miss Winona Beauty Pageant, and steamboat rides. 

Some events have remained finely intertwined and are synonymous with what Steamboat Days is. Events such as the Grand Parade, the carnival, treasure hunts, and the levee’s finale fireworks show have all been staples of the celebration. Some of this year’s events are also a callback to tradition, such as having Miss America attend Steamboat Days. The U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve Band will also be present, something that organizers have been trying to bring in for years.

The Grand Parade will feature over 60 different acts. The parade attracts thousands of visitors due to its size and content. “It’s one of the top-rated parades in the Midwest,” Graves said.

Another continued tradition is that of the annual Steamboat Days button. Steamboat Days has a unique button each year. Festivalgoers used to buy a button to get into the entire celebration, but the tradition waned in the 1980s, according to Benning. Nowadays, the buttons are used to help fund the celebration and also to get into some of the events. “Button sales are the best way for the average person to help,” Graves said.

“[It’s] a big thing. Buy a button and help support us,” Benning said.

Steamboat Days is run with the help and dedication of hundreds of volunteers, and many local businesses and sponsors, which drives home the fact that Steamboat Days is community-driven. “I want to thank our volunteers,” Benning said. He continued, “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to make it with the size and the scope that we do.”

More information about the 75th Steamboat Days and its events can be found on its website at The festival is set to kick off on June 15 with the Harbormaster’s Celebration at Levee Park.

This year, the Steamboat Days committee is hoping to get around 15-20,000 attendees. “Steamboat Days will always be a big attraction for Winona, it’s our big civic event,” Benning said. He continued, “I think Winona[ns] enjoy it, they look forward to it.”