The June sky turned an angry thunderstorm blue bringing rain down on John A. Latsch, canoeing near Camp Glory, now Bass Camp, on the Mississippi River above his hometown of Winona.
Latsch, a wealthy, 47-year-old grocer, loved to fish, hunt and explore the byzantine backwaters of the Mississippi River in his little boat. Back in 1907, the Mississippi River bottomland was privately owned yet used by the public. Usually, landowners allowed boaters brief refuge along the shore.
Not this day. As Latsch beached his canoe to wait out the storm, an angry farmer and his dog confronted him. The farmer demanded Latsch push off immediately.
Latsch complied but was deeply shaken. The next morning, he directed his business agent to purchase all of the land on which the incident occurred. He wanted the wild riverbanks to belong to everyone beginning a conservation career benefiting us all today.
By the time John Latsch died in 1934 at age 73, he had donated nearly 20,000 acres valued at over $2 million. He bought most of the 20 miles of bottomland from Whitman to Homer, Minnesota. He became southeastern Minnesota’s most generous conservationist, donating land to Minnesota and Wisconsin. These lands eventually became parts or all of John A. Latsch and Whitewater state parks in Minnesota and Perrot and Merrick state parks in Wisconsin.
As lavishly as he bestowed gifts to the public, John A. Latsch was personally frugal. He neither owned nor drove a car, preferring to travel in his canoe. Never married, he dressed plainly, ate sparingly and lived simply in his Winona home, occupying only a small part of the house. He was a modest man, never making a show of his generosity.
Growing up on the family farm in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, Latsch had little time for play. When John was 7, his father moved the family to Winona and opened a grocery business.
Paddling the backwaters of the Mississippi was his refuge from the long hours and responsibilities of his business. The solitude of the bottom lands, woods and bluffs along the Mississippi became his passion. Being denied refuge on the river during the storm only steeled his resolve to preserve the untamed natural beauty surrounding him for the enjoyment of future generations.
Today, John A. Latsch State Park is a simple wayside respite along Highway 61 with stunning view of Winona and the river. Like most things of value, you have to earn the privilege, scrambling up the steep staircase punctuated by benches where you can catch your breath.
Once perched atop the river, the world expands into the distance. The lofty aerie overlooks the riverbank where the legendary story of Latsch and the angry farmer took place.
Highway 61 snakes around the river bluffs in both directions far below. This is the home of hawks, wind and peace—a place befitting the stirrings of a soul like John Latsch’s.
Across the river, below Winona, another lofty aerie beckons in Wisconsin’s Perrot State Park. Gift of John Latsch, the park boasts Brady’s Bluff from where you can gaze upriver to Winona and then downriver to Trempealeau, Wisconsin.
On a sunny afternoon, you can bask in the warmth and grandeur of this spot. If you’re in luck, a river barge might be navigating the Mississippi River channel or a train’s whistle will echo off the bluffs. Maybe you’ll follow the path of an eagle drifting in the updrafts above the river.
Thanks to the vision and commitment to the public good of John A. Latsch, we can all enjoy a respite in one of the four state parks on both sides of the river that he helped create. We can wander the byways of the river bottom near Winona without fear of being sent on our way.
Isn’t that what John Latsch, perhaps the biggest kid of all, would have wanted?