Winona 1912

Rockwell Kent's
Winona, 1912

by Jim McGuire

When the pistons crashed to a halt and the white steam lifted, Rockwell Kent stepped off the train in 1912 to find the city of Winona bustling with activity. Its population was crowded into houses that barely contained the 22,000 inhabitants, and the city was experiencing a comeback from a disaster. That same year the Bay State Milling company swung open new doors that sparkled. A fire had devastated the operation, burning the mill to the ground the previous year. But six million dollars and two hundred days later, the company's grindstones were turning around the clock to satisfy the Wingold Flour Company's demand.

Besides the fall and rebirth of the mill, Winonans watched the stunning new J.R. Watkins offices rise into the sky as builders moved stone and wood into place. The Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company began to lay new wires in the business district. Lost in a flurry of letters, the Postmaster counted a record number of receipts for goods sold through the Post Office. Trains continued to power along the tracks, and "The finest vaudeville and motion picture house in the state," ornate and beautiful, opened to grace its sister playhouse. Not far from the river, Merchants Bank raised a new building expressing the Prairie Style vision of architects William Gray Purcell, George Feick, Jr., and George Grant Elmslie. Its stained glass awed bankers and patrons alike. In all 1912 was one of the most prosperous years for the business community.

But business activity was just part of the city's energy. The clink of hammers on stone and the thud of driven nails arose from the foundation of two new Catholic projects. In the center of the city the stonework for the girls' dormitory at the College of St. Teresa was taking shape to house the girls, while up the valley to the west St. Mary's College stretched out in the woods to accommodate the boys.

Meanwhile, near the city center dredges piled dirt for the future of the new Lake Park, heralded to become one of the most elegant open spaces in the community. New concrete roads were promised for a city already entangled by a web of cable car wires. The wagon wheel factory spun out perfect wooden circle after circle. And the marble pillars of the library still stood, reflecting the sun and reminding the pulsing river city that the library was still thriving after a decade. Large houses also surrounded many of the area's many new architectural gems. To this day many of Winona's old mansions still stand along Broadway.

But while Rockwell Kent was attracted to Winona by the farms surrounding the city, with their neat rows of apple trees and straight lines of wheat and corn, he journeyed from New York to the bustling river town to oversee the construction of two new mansions for the prominent Laird family.

He came to a Winona blazing like a freshly lit flame—where dust filled the air, electricity cracked, hammers clanked, and barges lumbered past while trains hurried east and west. It was a place full of energy, hope, and opportunity mixed with the quiet, steady peacefulness offered by the river, bluffs, and prairies above the valley. It was a good place for a rising artist to test his skills, his mind, and his heart, tune them to the beauty of progress and nature, the aspirations of people rich and poor, and the mix of new ideas and old ways becoming an unknown but exciting future.

Visit the Winona County History Center to learn more about Winona in 1912.