Four Days in Winona, Minnesota

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Crossing the Mississippi on a bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota, we belt out ‘Ol’ Man River’ under clouded skies. Trees stand in the middle of the white-capped river waters without visible island support. No tugboats in sight with or without barges. I hope the Winona Municipal Band my grandfather created in 1915 will be able to perform its first summer concert in the bandshell tomorrow evening. 

After settling into our motel beneath the towering limestone bluff known as Sugar Loaf, a hiking and climbing mecca for adventure seekers, we drive along Riverview Drive north from town to the always stimulating Minnesota Marine Art Museum. We know it won’t be open at night but we need to confirm it hasn’t been taken by the river. 

The drive north by northwest from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River town of Winona never fails to raise our spirits and reignite our desire to live there. Last week we were uncertain what we might find due to this year’s abundance of severe storms across the Upper Midwest.

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We cross the river east to Wisconsin and head south twenty miles to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Instantly we are wrapped in a living quilt of silence stitched together by birdsong. 

Established by FDR in 1936, the 6,200-acre refuge is within the Mississippi River flyway. Rolling sand prairies, wetlands that allow natural cycles of flood and drought, and bottomland forests of hardwoods create breeding grounds for migratory birds. In the Visitor Contact Station we learn that we have just missed the sandhill crane mating dances and migration. If we had only but known.

Following the 4.5-mile self-guided Prairie’s Edge Tour Loop, we stop at eleven informational signposts to learn about and appreciate the refuge and its inhabitants. 

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Standing on an observation deck, we watch red-winged blackbirds and grasshopper sparrows in their spirited quest for winged insects. The birds alight on lily pads among the floating vegetation mats in refuge waters. Half-ounce sparrows we understand, but three ounce blackbirds?

Walking beside the prairie, I stoop to check out tight clusters of white bells between leaves of milkweed plants. Soon they will open into pale purple flowers. The fragrance will be cloying to us, irresistible to the Monarch butterfly. We’ll migrate back ourselves. The refuge is a wonderful sanctuary for us as well, allowing time and space to reflect on what’s important in our lives. 

Returning to Winona, we lunch at the Boat House with its great views of the Mississippi. Today Levee Park between the restaurant and river is under water and the river itself is without signs of commerce or recreation. We take comfort in beer-battered cod, fresh-cut fries, and local brew.

All afternoon the weather alternates between threatening skies and sunshine. During the band’s rehearsal an hour before showtime, the sun wins.

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When the band celebrated its centennial year in 2015, I was contacted as a living relative and invited to attend the first concert devoted to my grandfather’s tenure as Director. The gracious musicians treated us like royalty. Grandfather leapt out of the pages of lore (he died in 1921) and I became a granddaughter wishing she played a band instrument as well as the piano. Bill and I fall in love not only with the band but also with Winona. 

Tonight’s free program of ten selections includes ‘The Minnesota March’ by John Philip Sousa, ‘Air for Band’ by Frank Erickson, and ‘Game of Thrones’ soundtrack highlights. Music for everyone, young and old. Audience sitting on benches stand and applaud, audience enjoying the music from their cars honk their horns. To us, this is what summer is all about.

After the concert we’re good and hungry so we stop at El Patron Mexican Grill to enjoy a platter of chile verde with pork, rice, and beans, and bottles of Victoria beer before closing time.

Bill and I check out the nearby antique store Treasures Under Sugar Loaf just in case we need anything. We’re always on the hunt for a piece or two of Depression Glass to replace worn or broken glass in our collection. An entertaining and inexpensive hobby if we don’t find any.

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Next stop is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum to enjoy ‘great art inspired by water.’ 

A stunning special exhibit of Maarten Pltaje’s ‘The Early History of the U.S. Navy’ captivates us with its raw beauty and realism backed by historical documents. Check him out on the Internet! 

In the galleries (and there are many) are paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, O’Keefe, and other masters. I especially enjoy viewing large works by Jamie, Andrew, and N.C. Wyeth hung side by side. Enormous paintings by the marine artist Edward Moran and his younger brother, Thomas, known best for his idyllic landscapes of the West, are long-time favorites. 

In the museum shop we buy Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip Through a Midwestern Landscape by Lynne Diebel. Last year we purchased The Driftless Reader edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley. Two years ago, One Woman’s River: A Solo Source-to-Sea Paddle on the Mighty Mississippi written and illustrated by Trempealeau resident Ellen Kolbo McDonah. We can’t get enough of this landscape and rivers.

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A close up of a sign

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A close up of a sign

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We continue further north to check out floodwaters at the landing where we liked to sit by the river and read. Flooded but beautiful. An industrious beaver re-engineering his disturbed habitat swims past without so much as a nod our direction.

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Returning to Winona, we stop for a turtle. Cars line up behind us, motorcycles ahead as Bill determines how to handle the situation. Checking that it’s not a snapper, he gives the big Smooth Softshell a nudge in the tail with his sneaker and the turtle, as good as his reputation, rises up on all four legs, jumps a turn, and sprints over and down the grassy embankment to safety. Never have we seen a turtle move so fast! Thumbs up from drivers and bikers alike.


Invited to join several band members at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse for dinner as a birthday celebration for me, we enjoy the farm-to-table offerings of fresh vegetables and locally sourced meats. I order a delicious double IPA brewed by the local Island City Brewing Company along with my roasted beet salad and sunflower veggie sandwich. A fine way to celebrate!

Bill and I return to the Blue Heron at ten in the morning to meet with poets in charge of the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest held in conjunction with the Great River Shakespeare Festival. While we read our poetry to each other, visual artists arrive with paintings and photographs to arrange an exhibition in the coffeehouse. This heady combination of the arts and personal history makes Winona feel like hallowed ground. Thank you, Grandfather.

Before we return next summer, we will miss (to name but a few opportunities) nine more Winona Municipal Band Concerts (thru Aug 14), Great River Shakespeare Festival (Jun 25-Aug 4), Minnesota Beethoven Festival (Jun 30-Jul 21), Great Dakota Gathering (Sep 7-8), Christmas Holiday Train (Dec), Frozen River Film Festival and Winona Winter Carnival (Feb 2020), as well as musical and theatrical performances at Winona State University and Saint Mary’s University.

For more information: winona mn tourist information

Photos by Stephanie Colburn


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