The June sky turned dark as a thunderstorm bore down on John A. Latsch, who was canoeing on the Mississippi River above his hometown of Winona. Latsch, a wealthy grocer, loved to fish, hunt and explore the Byzantine backwaters of the Mississippi River in his little boat. Back then, in 1907, when Latsch was a 47-year-old businessman, the Mississippi River bottom land was viewed as public property, even if it was privately owned. Usually, landowners allowed boaters brief refuge along the shore, especially under brooding skies.
Not this day. As Latsch beached his canoe and crawled beneath it to wait out the storm, an angry farmer and his dog confronted him. The farmer demanded that the well-known Winonan push off from his property immediately.
Latsch complied but the next morning, he directed his business agent to purchase the land on which the incident occurred. He wanted the wild riverbanks to belong to everyone. Thus was born a conservation career that has left a lasting mark on both sides of the Mississippi.
The lands he donated to Minnesota and Wisconsin eventually became parts or all of John A. Latsch and Whitewater state parks in Minnesota and Perrot and Merrick state parks in Wisconsin.
Today, John A. Latsch State Park is a simple wayside respite along Hwy. 61, about 12 miles northwest of Winona. The 450-acre park is for day use only with a shady picnic area nestled under the hardwoods bordering the busy highway.
The park’s main attraction is Charity Bluff, rising 500 feet above the Mississippi River. Along with its sister bluffs, Faith and Hope, this trio of rocky headlands formed a natural navigational landmark for steamboat captains heading up or down the river. In the 1850s, a bustling steamboat landing and logging town was tucked into the foot of the bluffs, supplying timber for the sprouting town of Winona. Today, the bluffs make great spots for viewing fall’s colors.
Like most things of value, you have to earn the privilege of the bluff-top vista, scrambling 592 steps up the steep staircase, which is punctuated by benches where you can catch your breath.
Once you are perched atop the river, the world expands into the distance. The lofty aerie overlooks the riverbank where the legendary story of Latsch and the farmer took place. Hwy. 61 snakes around the river bluffs far below. This is the home of peace, wind and hawks.
The park lies in the heart of the Mississippi River flyway, affording a front-row seat for observing migrant flocks of warblers, flycatchers, orioles, sparrows and thrushes. Bald eagles, hawks and vultures wheel in the updrafts. If you bring along a picnic lunch, you can get lost in the panorama — one of the best views in Minnesota — while lingering on top of the world.
WHERE TO EAT
Betty Jo Byoloski’s (66 Center St., Winona; 1-507-454-2687; www.bettyjos.com) is a local landmark for handmade pizza and specialty sandwiches and entrees. Wellington’s Backwater Brewing Co. (1429 Service Drive, Winona; 1-507-452-2103; www.westgatewellingtons.com) is a favorite spot for burgers, ribs and award-winning chili.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Alexander Mansion B & B (274 E. Broadway St., Winona; 1-507-474-4224; www.AlexanderMansionBB.com) is within walking distance of downtown Winona and the Mississippi River. Plaza Hotel and Suites (1025 Hwy. 61 E., Winona; 1-507-453-0303; www.plazawinona.com) is a family-friendly destination. Fountain City Motel (810 S. Main St., Fountain City, Wis.; 1-608-687-3111; www.fountaincitymotel.com) features themed suites such as the Northwoods, the Harley and the Good Fishing.
Why go now
Big Muddy River Rendezvous, Oct. 15-20, offers a step back in time to see how people lived, worked and played during the pre-1840s fur trade era. Held at the Prairie Island Campground (1-507-452-4501; 1120 Prairie Island Road, Winona; www.prairieislandcamp.com). For rendezvous details, go to www.bigmuddyriverrendezvous.blogspot.com).
Winona Farmers Market features 44 vendors offering locally grown fruits and vegetables as well as syrup, baked goods and more. 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays; 7:30 a.m.-noon Saturdays through October (1-507-261-7106; 2nd and Main Street N., Winona; www.winonafarmersmarket.com).
IF YOU GO
John A. Latsch State Park (contact Whitewater State Park; 1-507-932-3007; 19041 Hwy. 74, Altura, MN 55910; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/).
To see why Latsch fell in love with the outdoors, visit these nearby Minnesota state parks: Whitewater, Carley and Great River Bluffs. For details on each, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/. Type the park’s name in the search bar. To see Latsch’s generosity across the river, visit Wisconsin’s Perrot and Merrick State Parks (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/findapark.html).
Jim Umhoefer is a writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.