On the occasion of the ribbon-cutting of the Laird Norton Addition to the Winona County Historical Society

   “As salubrious as sea breezes are reported to be, I prefer to inhale the pungent odor of pine sawdust.”  —William H. Laird

According to Matthew G. Norton, God commanded Moses
to build the tabernacle from lumber 16 feet by 20 inches.
Hence, the same dimensions the Lairds and Nortons used.
And 20 inches remained the width of boards in barns thereafter.
King Solomon had the cedars of Lebanon logged, skidded
and rafted to Joppa, thence to Jerusalem to build the temple.
The contract went to Hiram of Tyre, for 20,000 measures of wheat
and 20,000 measures of olive oil a year for as long as it took.
That was ages ago—our system here was not much different.

Walk a few blocks from this spot, and you’ll feel
a spring in your step. Dig down to the reason why—
the foundation of this town, a thick layer of sawdust.
The Lairds and Nortons, from the Susquehanna
brought thrift here from the Scots, Irish doggedness,
Dutch prudence to weather the hardships, negotiate
the floods and logjams of life and business on the river.
They rarely tooted their own horn, though, in 1875,
they bought a whistle as loud as you’d hear on any
ocean liner. They led when called upon, and revered
their family and community. Philanthropists who
built our library, a church, hospital, the Y, and colleges.
And now, on the 75th anniversary of our Winona County
Historical Society, the gift of this beautiful addition.
Norman Rockwell would have painted their portrait.

The sawmills are long silent, the white pines clear cut.
The notion that those lands could be turned to farms,
misguided. Nonetheless, these families were stewards.
But in the day, the raucous symphony of sounds:
the hum and whine of the mills, the voices, in different
accents, the hoot of the riverboats on the river road,
men in checkered coats and plaid caps ajaunt,
sauntering down the boardwalks, to barbershop,
to beer hall and pool hall, to Queenie LeVeque’s
or Frenchie LaTour’s on 2nd Street. At sun-up,
ducks, chickens, geese, cows and pigs in backyard
harmony. The railroads then, were mythical.
The river is still a road, the railroads continue to run,
but its not the same. Progress, a mixed blessing.
“Frontier,” once romantic, is now a buzzword.

One can catch the incense of pine, now and then
and on occasion, woodsmoke from Dakota campfires.
In early June, listen and you’ll hear the drums
coming from down the lake—it’s not your imagination.
You can sense, too, the template of that other town–
Chief Wapasha’s village, long before the rest of us.
Take time to always remember and honor his people.

But Sarah Bernhardt and John Barrymore are ghosts,
our own Ben and Myrtle Huntley, silver nitrate images.
The Opera House and Philharmonic Hall are dust,
though The Bard and Beethoven resound: Winona,
in summer, a cornucopia. You won’t find the old
Post Office, Shorty’s, or the Hot Fish Shop, but
The Lakeview still welcomes you. And since this is
a river town, we have learned wariness of con-men
and flim-flam agents. Yet we acknowledge and respect
our eccentrics, champion our underdogs and renegades.
Why, even the Poles and Germans have learned to get along!

Other names arise, like John Latsch, inventor
of self-effacement, who left so much to us,
in town and up and down the river. His one
portrait, looking like a reluctant Col. Potter.
He would be embarrassed at having a park
and island named for him. The names of many others
who have given time and treasure, citizens living
with us in our daily lives. And there’ve been heroes
like Max Conrad, Gene Gabrych, Paul Giel and,
back in the 20’s, Babe Ruth’s roommate, Julie Wera.
But the average Joe and Jane have done just as much
to build this town and the other towns of the county—
from Germany, Poland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Luxemborg.
More recently, from Mexico, from Bosnia, and Hmongs
from Laos, whose gardens brighten the hills and valleys.
Where, once, we read the Wiarus, and the Westlicher Herold.
Where now two universities and a technical college bless
our lives, where factories, and stained glass studios, and
Bloedow’s give us this day our daily bread (and long johns).
Of these other names, many men are mentioned, but this history
is just as much her story, from that first Christmas dinner with
Aunt Catherine’s doughnuts fried in coon grease, to this very day.

This, our sandbar, our prairie, our island city in the river.
Where the population has been the same for nearly
a hundred years. Maybe no one ever dies here—they
just incarnate with a different face. Why would
anyone ever want to leave? The east end, the west end,
the bluffs, the river, the lakes, the sister streams,
view of the white dome of St. Stan’s from the lookout.
The winding roads past farmsteads, to our nearby towns.
And farther back, Wapasha’s Cap, the lodges and the tipis.
Turn to the person standing next to you, brother, sister,
and shake their hand, or give them a hug. Who knows
how you will be related to them in your next life here.

—Ken McCullough
18 July 2010

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Painting by Lisa Nankivil for "Obsidian Point" Book Cover

Photos of painting, books and other works by Kathy Greden

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