|It was a warm sunny afternoon in Autumn, 1891. Things were surprisingly quiet on main street of the pioneer town of Winona, located in Emmons County on the east bank of the Missouri River. Just across the river on the west side was Fort Yates where 3,000 troops of the U.S. Army had been stationed since the Custer Massacre at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The town actually had its beginning during the winter of 1874 and ’75. In 1873 the Standing Rock Indian Reservation was established along the west side of the river from the South Dakota line and north. Major Palmer, the first agent for agency headquarters, chose a point close to an upright rock revered by the Sioux Indians as a petrified figure of a woman and child.
In the fall of 1874 Captain Harmon and John Dillon took the contract to build four Agency buildings of cottonwood logs. The buildings were located in a square and connected by a log fence. They hired a crew of 40 men to cut the logs and do the construction work.
The crew had to have a place to live. They were restricted from building on the west side of the river, first, because they could not own land on the Reservation and, second, because liquor was not allowed there. So they went across to the east side of the river where Andy Marsh had a wood yard with which to supply fuel for the steam boats plying the stream.
There they built 16 log cabins, each large enough to accommodate two men. Marsh had a larger building where he put in a stock of whiskey, two drinks for 25 cents cash on the barrel head. Besides the drinks, this place also provided entertainment for the men, such as dancing in which Indian girls from the Reservation took part.
The town at first was appropriately named Devil’s Colony. Not only did it serve the construction crew, but there were a few soldiers stationed at the Agency from the beginning. They soon found their way to the east side of the river for amusement. Also, there was a large number of Texas cowboys who had come north with cattle owned by the Turkey Track Cattle Company and grazed along the west side of the river north towards Canada. Also, numerous sheep and cattle ranches and a few farms sprang up along the east side of the river.
With the ranchers and farmers came families. Far from railroads or trading centers, there was a need for stores, hotels, restaurants as well as saloons. Devil’s Colony didn’t seem to fill the bill so the Indian name of Winona was chosen instead. Then a newspaper, the Winona Times. Also, there was a barber shop and a blacksmith shop and the town was on its way.
Following the Custer Massacre in 1876, 3,000 troops, 2,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, were stationed across the river at Ft. Yates, named after Captain George Yates who was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That meant more activity at Winona. A boom was on and Charley Patterson, the Times Editor, proclaimed it in his columns, the biggest city between Bismarck, North Dakota, and Pierre, South Dakota, with two hotels, two stores, two restaurants and other businesses. The latter consisted of up to nine saloons. "Winona and vicinity has no equal" was the oft repeated slogan.
From 1874 into the 1900’s to 1912 many different men and women had a part in carrying on the functions of the town. Listed in an issue of Charley Patterson’s Winona Times were Douglas and Company, general merchandise, groceries, dry goods, hardware and lumber; C.A. Hinkle, Notary; Merchant’s Hotel, J. Waldon, Prop.; Baker and Patterson, Loans; D.M. Waterberry, Notary; Thomas Spicer, Blacksmith; City Dray Line, Water Hauled anywhere in town, C. Otto Gaudlitz, Proprietor.
Other names gathered from those who remember were Major Pitts merchandise and Post Master; Don Stevenson, Hotel; Jerry Hart, Store; Tom Sleasing, sawmill; John Ashcroft, Frank "Mickey" and Ed McConville. Ed once carried mail from Winona to Pierre. Also, living on his ranch just south of the town was Jack McCrory who was a prominent figure in the town. These and, no doubt, many more with the stuff pioneers are made from made the country what it is.
Supplies for the stores and saloons were freighted overland from Eureka, South Dakota, the nearest railroad town. In fact, most livestock and farm products were marketed at Eureka. Win and Hal Tracy were probably best known of the freighters. One of their stopping places on their route was the Ed McConville log cabin near the Westfield Community. Another stopping place was the Joe Clark home and post office.
North of the town was an oval race track. The many horsemen around made horse racing a popular sport. Some of the broncs from off the range proved to have great speed. Much of the breeding brought to America by the early day Spaniards had been carried down to the wild horses on the plains. So on a holiday or Sunday the race track was a scene of great excitement.
There were a few negroes in the community, many had come up the river from St. Louis as steam boat hands. Some worked at Ft. Yates. A number of women came to work at Fort Yates or in Winona. A Texas cowboy passing through a Missouri town saw a cute little negro boy. The cowboy picked the boy up and took him along up to Winona.
One negro, Andrew Slater, had a white patch under one eye. He had been hit there in a fight. A sore developed, and when it healed, the spot took on a lighter tone than the rest of his face. He operated a ferry boat when the river was open, carrying the mail and passengers between Winona and Ft. Yates. In winter, sleighs were used for transportation across the ice.
A negro named Buckner became a barber. He had a sod house for living quarters with a log addition where he practiced the tonsorial trade. His wife was a white woman with blonde hair. They had a beautiful daughter, Anna, with very white skin. On hot days Buckner might be seen sitting on the north side of his establishment, dressed only in his Long John underwear. Leslie Putnam recalls going there with his father, Cliff Putnam, for a haircut.
In a way, Winona was a wild and wide open town, with but few laws and fewer means of enforcing them. However, business was good in the necessities of life, groceries, clothing, hardware, lumber, etc. General merchandise meant nearly everything needed for the operation of farms, ranches, and homes.
Inside a store were the two long counters, one on each side of the building. First, on one side would be the candy counter, enclosed with glass, for boys and girls to flatten their noses against. What a sight for young eyes. There were long sticks of horehound and striped peppermint candies. Licorice took many shapes, heavy sticks, shoe strings, pipes. Chocolate might be seen as cigars, chocolate coated jugs with syrup, chocolate creams that sold for a penny each, forerunner of the all day suckers, hard rock candy with the stick one chewed for the juice the wood contained. There was a case for cigars and cigarette markings for rolling.
Next came the grocery counter with glass front bins underneath for beans, rice, sugar, dried fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, prunes, and a bin for oyster crackers. On top of the counter would be large wooden boxes for soda crackers to put up in paper bags for the customers. A large round cheese was under a screen cover. Three-cornered pieces would be cut off as desired. Flour was sold in 100 pound bags. And let’s not forget the heavy pink paper bags used exclusively for sugar.
Back against the wall were shelves devoted to put a few canned goods of such as sardines, salmon, tomatoes, and baking powder. Then there were yeast cakes and soda and Arbuckle and Lions coffee beans in bags of one pound each to grind in your kitchen. Smoked hams and bacons wrapped in heavy yellow paper bags hung on the wall. There were stacks of chewing tobacco, JT, Star, Horsehoe, Climax and Spearhead. A knife with a handle fastened to a stand was used to cut off the sized plugs desired.
The counter on the other side of the store was devoted largely to clothing, dress goods and shoes. There was a glass case with spools of thread. Cloth was piled on shelves against the wall, as were overalls, shirts, underwear, socks, shoes, rubber foot wear and what was needed by men of the day.
In one of the front windows was hung a bunch or two of bananas. They would be sold singly or more as the customer wished. Save the peelings to polish tan shoes. In the window on the other side were buggy whips hung from the ceiling on a circular iron rack. They were priced all the way from 25 cents to a dollar.
Back in the rear of the store were various items of hardware, cookware, and tools. Three large barrels on a stand contained vinegar, molasses, and kerosene. Jugs or cans were filled from wooden spigots.
Many tales have been told of happenings in the old town. Handed down from generation to generation, told and retold by many different individuals, they no doubt take on versions as variance with the original facts as can well be expected. Whether true to the letter or not, they no doubt give a fair picture of life in old Winona.
As thousands of unattached young men were available, the town attracted numerous girls who worked or "helped entertain" in the saloons. As one man of the time wrote: "The girls came to Winona for the thrills of living in a Western town." One lady who stood out as a leader among them was a school teacher but found more lucrative ways of making money. She was a poker player and a good business woman. Later she married a rancher, Ott Black, and lived the last of her years on the ranch which she managed until she died.
South of town in the woods was a graveyard where were buried the saloon girls who had died far from home, families and friends. Employed by the saloons, a year or two of riotous living withered their bloom. Abuse of health and body was followed by death, sometimes suicide or by other causes.
Of course, gambling was a part of the lecherous life. Pale faced men came from afar to sit at the gaming tables and often met their match among the local patrons of the town. A story, true or not but interesting, is of a building or room extending out over the river. If a new man, through skill or trickery, showed an unusual winning streak, he would be maneuvered around the table to a spot over a trap door. If his earnings piled up to seemingly more than his share, the trap door would be sprung and he would take a watery departure.
During the winters there would be a considerable travel between Ft. Yates and Winona on "Shank’s horses". It is said that after an evening of over imbibing in Winona, the trip back to the Fort might be quite treacherous because of air holes in the ice. It is possible that accounted for an occasional AWOL.
One man who because a little too obstreperous was hit over the head with a cuspidor by one of the saloon girls. She perhaps used more force than she intended, or hit most vital spot. She and the owner of the saloon dragged the body into the back shed. As it was winter, they left it there until the ground thawed in the spring so it could be buried.
Arrival of the stage coach from Pierre and Bismarck carrying the mail was always an event of importance. On one occasion, one of the girls from a saloon had received a letter which she opened immediately and read. When she left the post office, she tried to hide her face as tears rolled down her cheek. What the letter told her was never known. That night which on the dance floor she drank from a bottle of carbolic acid. With a shriek she fell in death. She was buried in the woods south of town.
A story is told of a girl who one quiet afternoon shot and killed a man, a transient in her room over the saloon. Shortly after the shot rang out, she came frightened down the stairs and told her employer what she had done. The two dragged the dead man’s body down into the cellar where they dug a grave and buried it. The grave was covered over with empty beer kegs
Sometime later, the freighter who supplied the saloon discovered he was short of some of the empty kegs. He questioned the saloon keeper who, on swearing the freighter to secrecy, told of the body buried in the cellar. The kegs were taken away. No doubt, the remains of the body are still in the grave in the cellar hole.
Andy Marsh, who had the wood yard where Winona was built, had an Indian wife. Their four children attended school with the Gore sisters, Agnes and Hannah Lenore. One day the Gore girls while visiting at the marsh home were invited to eat dinner there. They were served large dishes of a very tender and delicious meat almost floating in gravy. After the meal while the children were a play outside, the Marsh boy, Claude, told the girls they had eaten dog. They wouldn’t believe it until they were shown the remains of a dog that had been butchered. The girls became sick and left for home immediately.
Andy Marsh’s wife died and he married another Indian girl, one of the Cree tribe. The Cree and the Sioux tribes were at war. One day Andy and his wife were riding on a load of hay he was taking to his barn. A couple of Sioux Indians sneaked up and shot the girl as she clung to her husband for protection.
Thore Naaden, a dear old friend who grew up in the Winona country, told of either a trapper or wood cutter who had married an Indian girl. She was shot and killed by a Sioux warrior. The man hid out in some brush along the east of the Missouri and took revenge by picking off with his deer rifle an occasional Sioux who might venture into the water from the west bank.
Now back to the beginning. It was a warm sunny afternoon in Autumn. Those persons stirring were on peaceful pursuits. There was a rattle of wagon wheels. Shortly, Win Tracy, a freighter, rounded the corner with a load of supplies. Later, his load dispersed, he put his horses in the barn behind the hotel for feed and rest.
A lady, one of the few housewives in the town, was on her way to Major Pitt’s store. Coming her way were two gaudily dressed women of doubtful age who had just emerged from a saloon where they were employed. The lady stepped to the edge of the board walk and drew her skirts close around her as they passed by. A little further on, a farm wife in town with butter and eggs to exchange for necessities of life, drew her children close as the gaily dressed pair approached.
A farmer pulled up in front of the store. He unloaded several sacks of wheat to be traded for groceries. His wife brought in a couple of jars of butter and a basket of eggs. Proceeds of these were earmarked for the dry goods counter. Their children flattened their noses against the candy showcase.
Down the street could be heard the sound of a hammer striking on an anvil. Inside was the blacksmith, bare to the waist except for a leather apron for protection against sparks and the intense heat from the forge beside him. He was putting an edge on a settler’s plow lay. Tied to one side were a couple of horses waiting to be reshod.
A young man, Charles Coventry, less than 18 years of age not long from England, now working on the George Bachus ranch, drove to the store with a team and wagon. He had worked hard for several months and now was in town for the night and a few hours to relax. At the store he unloaded a couple bags of wheat his employer had given him to trade for supplies. Like the freighter, when unloaded, he took his team to the barn back of the hotel.
There was a show scheduled for the evening in the log building that served as the opera house. A show troupe had come cross country from Eureka for the performance. As the sunlight dimmed, folks from the town, ranches, and the Fort across the river gathered for the event. Seats consisting of planks laid on beer kegs were soon filled and the show was on. Between acts, men and girls of the troupe sold candy and knick-knacks in the aisles.
After the show, the floor was cleared for a dance. The plank seats were lined along the walls. There was music from a fiddle and an organ and soon the dance was on.
The young Charles Coventry found a seat beside an old rancher, who he later learned was Jack McCrory, to watch the dancers swing and sway with two-step and waltz. As the dance progressed, the usual hilarity arose. Suddenly, one of the dancers giving vent to his enthusiasm, whipped out a pistol and shot into the ceiling several times. Almost with the first shot, the dancers fled. The young Coventry thought first of running with the rest but decided not to when he observed the old man beside him sit undisturbed. Shortly, a Constable speared on the scene, took the trigger happy gunman away and the dance again went on.
The next morning, Charles Coventry was hitching his team to the wagon to go back to the ranch. Win Tracy, the freighter who had come into town the day before, was also hitching his team to return to Eureka. "How about it, lad," he said, "we are going the same road for several miles, why don’t you tie your team behind my wagon so we can ride together and visit?" That was readily agreed to and shortly the two were sitting side by side on the seat of the freight wagon.
As they turned the corner by Maggie Murphey’s saloon, the freighter said Whoa to his team and passed the lines to his companion with, "You hold my horses while I go in here and collect a bill." He got down off the wagon and disappeared through the saloon door. Shortly there was a sound of commotion emanating from the saloon and Tracy came walking backwards out of the saloon with his hands up. Maggie Murphey with a pistol pointed at his belly was saying, "so you want to collect a bill, so you, you so and so? So you want to collect a bill?"
Tracy hurried back to the wagon seat, took his lines and they went on out of town. Apparently Maggie didn’t pay the bill that day.
Charles Coventry went on in this new country to teach school. Later he became Superintendent of Schools for Emmons County. Then he studied law, was admitted to the bar. He served as County States Attorney. When the KEM Electric REA Cooperative was organized in 1946, he was named Attorney for the organization, a position he held until his death in 1953.
The school at Old Winona was one of the first, largest, and best in Emmons County. The building located north of the main part of town, near the race track, was a two-story four-room affair. Among the many teachers were Mrs. Waterbury, W.B. Andrus who later became County Superintendent of Schools, Mary Farell, Eva Campbell
Alice Redoubt [sic] (Redoute), Pearl Braithwait, Sadie Doerschlag, Jessie Flanders, and Edna Conner. Later there were Rasmena "Minnie" Naaden who married Jim Jones, and Petrah Naaden, widow of Horton DeVan and still living in Pollock.
The first Teachers’ Institute in the county was held at the Winona School. John H. Worst, first Superintendent of Schools of the county, attended the Institute He was later elected first State Senator from Emmons County, was elected Lieutenant Governor of the State and then appointed President of the North Dakota Agricultural College, a position he held for twenty-one years.
Many students of that school wee among the pioneers who built the county. Three daughters of the Bart Lee family are best remembered as Mrs. Wally Keyes, Mrs. Glenn Woods, and Mrs. Ike Bloor. Irene Pitts Irvine, one of the first children born in Winona, attended the school. Christy Solomonson Lynn, now of Linton, started her education in the Winona School. She remembers the joy of riding ponies into the old town. There were two Gore sisters who attended the school for a time. Agnes Gore married Roy Bales. They were parents of Harold Bales and Mrs. Leslie Putnam. The other sister, Hannah Lenore, became Mrs. Kneebone and went to Oregon to live.
Among the many others who attended the school or were listed in the census were: Frank Burge, Allen Dyer, Arthur and George Pitts, Hazel and Mamie Haggard, Henry Johnson, John and Eddie Cook, Thomas McCrory, the Spicer children, Rochus Nagel, Mark Ashcroft, John McCrory, now on his ranch west of Linton, and Elmer Anderson who operated a ranch west of Linton until his death in 1945.
Mrs. Hanna Walther of Linton was quite familiar with Winona. She attended a rural school east of the town. Her father, Jacob Breckel, settled on a farm 12 miles east of the town in the spring of 1897 when she was five years of age. She says while cattle roamed everywhere her family had none. She and her sisters had great fear of the cowboys who herded the cattle. One day a cowboy rode into their yard, much to the dismay of the youngsters. He was Jack McCrory of the ranch south of Winona. He offered her father six cows to care for on shares. That started the Breckels in the cattle business. Later she worked on the ranch for Mrs. McCrory.
She recalls that each summer Indians would gather in large numbers north of the big hotel. They would come with their horses and wagons and whole families. The men would spend much time in dancing Indian Pow Wow style. The women would cut up the beef they butchered and hang slices on clotheslines to dry. After a week or so, they would take off to other Reservations such as Ft. Totten near Devils’ Lake.
A Literary and Dramatic club organized by Mrs. Waterbury of the School functioned for several years. While there was no church building, Catholic Services were held in the Waldon Hotel by Reverend Father Bernard of Ft. Yates. A Mr. Enny, preacher, is mentioned as having been in the community. The Thomas Spicers conducted Sunday School. He was a blacksmith in Winona and the family lived on a small ranch north of the town. He, his wife, and four other members of the family were murdered in 1897 by five Indians in search of liquor. Three of the Indians were lynched at Williamsport, county seat at that time.
There were two main factors that were responsible for the life and development of Winona. One of these was the large numbers of troops stationed across the river at Ft. Yates. The other was the lack of railroads within forty or fifty miles. First came railroads followed by trade center of Pollock, Linton and Strasburg in the early 1890’s. These two towns drew much trade away from Winona. Perhaps the final and most telling blow was the removal of the federal troops from Ft. Yates in 1895.
After that, the economy of the town dried and withered away fast. Jerry Hart was the last merchant in the town. He moved into the big hotel and carried on for several years. That building ceased to exist in 1912. So all the evidence of the once thriving metropolis of Emmons County are the scars on the sod or cellar holes where the buildings once existed. The once popular race track, a perfect oval, can be seen from the air by the difference in growth of the grass that has taken over.