top of page

Winnebago History

Winnebago was originally called Winnebago City, and under the latter name was laid out in 1856. The city was named after the Winnebago Indians, who had recently been moved to a reservation nearby from a location further north near Long Prairie. A post office was established as Winnebago City in 1857, and "city" was dropped from the name in 1905.


Main Street, Winnebago Minnesota, 1930s

In September of 1856 five young men (Dr. Charles H. Parker, Andrew Dunn, Warren Dunham, James Sherlock, and Elija Barritt), desiring to establish a frontier town, explored possibilities in the southern counties of the state.

Finding the Albert Lea site occupied, they turned west and came to the Blue Earth River. They found Mr. Young and a relative of Grover C. Burt living in a tent with Capt. H. H. Bigelow adjoining their claim on the location where the town now stands. The group agreed that this was an ideal place for a town. Young and Burt

gave up their claim and chose others on the nearby prairie. Messrs, Wellman and Johnson, civil engineers of St. Paul, made the final surveys in January 1857 and the plats were filed soon after. The original town site contained 320 acres.

The group camped about six weeks with Bigelow while they laid out the town. Winter was approaching and a warmer shelter had to be built. Young already had logs cut, perhaps for a house for himself. The men built a tiny cabin, 10 X 14 feet. It was finished in November and Dr. Parker sent a small stock of goods and another man, Tom Foley, to operate the little building as a store.

The early historians record the group dwindling as winter on the prairie approached and they had started to build a hotel. One Dr. W. N. Towndrow undertook this important work. It was 20 X 36 feet. The story-and-a-half structure's walls were completed, but the lumber for the roof and floor ordered from Mankato did not arrive until spring. It served a good purpose as a fort during the Indian excitement in the spring of 1857. Four men and a woman spent that first winter in Winnebago. Barritt and Dunn remained from the original company. A man named Allan joined them, and they all lived with Capt. Bigelow and his wife. There was three feet of snow on the prairie and it is said Mrs. Bigelow froze her feet as she worked cooking for the men.

Pioneers began to come into the area when spring came to the prairie. One visitor, after walking from Mankato through the snow filled sloughs and muddy roads in early April 1857, recorded this impression in his journal. "At 12 o'clock we reached Winnebago City. But there is no city there to speak of. In fact, there is no town at all, but there is a magnificent roomy place to build a town. I should think they could build a town the size of London and not be crowed much. I observed there only a large house of some size and apparently which Dow (his companion) said was intended for a hotel; also, one other small, log building at which we stopped. It proved to be the store kept by one Thomas Foley. He has a few dry goods, some tobacco, cod fish and a barrel of whiskey. Foley is a postmaster, and he overhauled the mail and seemed extremely happy."

Surveys had been completed that winter and the town was named. They had originally planned to call it Middleton (after a town in Connecticut) because it was halfway between Blue Earth City and a settlement near Amboy, called Shelbyville. Told that there was already a post office in the state by that name, they agreed to call it Winnebago for the Indians who roamed rather freely from the reservation north of the settlement.

When spring finally came in 1857, the long-awaited steam sawmill arrived. The mill was six months in passage from Dubuque to Mankato by river and was brought across the prairie to Winnebago by 20 yokes of oxen. It was the first mill in the county and gave the town it's real beginning. Logs on the prairie were scarce and lumber was available no closer than Mankato. Now building could proceed and the town had raw material for growth. This mill was first owned by the town proprietors but was purchased and operated for some years by Gee. H. Goodnow, at one time sheriff of the county. Mr. Goodnow attached a set of burrs to the power, and this was the first gristmill in the county.

The settlers petitioned for a school district in the summer of 1857 and erected a little school building the next spring, the first in the county. Blue Earth Valley Lodge, No. 27, was instituted in this city in 1858, the first Masonic Lodge in the county.

One of the greatest events in the history of the village was the arrival of the United States Land Office on November 4, 1861. It was formerly in Chatfield. Mr. J. H. Welch, a citizen of the county, was appointed register, and Mr. H. W. Holley, who thereafter became a permanent resident of the county, was appointed receiver. The office remained in Winnebago City until August 1869 when it was moved westward to Jackson, MN.

The newspapers were full of reports of covered wagons moving through, and the town grew to meet the needs of the homesteaders. Each had to register his claim and the land office. The land office was a great benefit to the village and county. The first newspaper published in town was the Whig of '76. Carr Huntington was the proprietor and editor. The first issue was published on October 31, 1863. The name was changed to the Free Homestead when J. L. Christie purchased the paper in March of 1864. Christie had an interesting career owning various Minnesota newspapers. His last paper in Winnebago was the Winnebago City Press. One of the papers he produced was the Mankato Free Press.

Three hotels were built to handle the growing traffic. Four stage lines fanned out to Fairmont, Waseca, Lake Crystal, and Jackson. New Businesses sprang up, the old ones prospered. The boom was on!

The Southern Minnesota Railroad was completed to the village early in 1871 and remained the western terminus of the road until 1878 when it was extended westward. In 1879 the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad running from Lake Crystal southward was built through the city and township, giving the city direct outlets to all points. As a railroad terminus Winnebago quickly became a grain center. Wheat was the biggest crop on the prairie and most of it was shipped to market by rail. Farmers who had come to the land office now came to the railroad. Business boomed again. A letter written in 1879 said there were "ten brick buildings in this town, two newspapers, about 1,000 inhabitants, one large steam mill that ran out two or three carloads of flour a day, seven machine yards, two millinery stores, four groceries, two clothing stores, five dry goods and clothing stores, two railroads. Crops are good this year. Four harness shops, four blacksmith shops, seven warehouses, two lumber yards, one mill one mile from town on the river, three hotels, two dray lines, two drug stores, five lawyers, and three insurance agents."

Mr. Kiester wrote a glowing account of the first Faribault County Fair, which was held in Winnebago City October 5, 1859. The attendance was large and their great interest in the occasion. The fair demonstrated that this county, yet in its infancy, could produce as excellent grains, vegetables, stock, dairy products, and articles for domestic manufacture as any county in the northwest. The second fair of the Agricultural Society was held again at Winnebago City in 1861. Thereafter Winnebago and Blue Earth alternated until 1871 when it was held in Wells. In 1872 Delavan was the site. In time the fair was held in Blue Earth City.

Reporting on the Winnebago City Fair of 1893 (the 34th such) it was written:

"Enthusiasm over the fair was manifest in all quarters and particularly our Old Settlers, the noble old guard of self-reliant men and women who pioneered this country, pointed at the grand collective exhibit as a refutation of the statement that 'hard times' can co-exist with any such prosperous condition of affairs."

Parker College was founded in 1888. It offered courses in business, music, theology, science, and education to the students. It was operated and was a part of the fabric of the community until 1924.

By 1900 the city was described as "not only a commanding trade center, but a money center, manufacturing center and an educational center and a place of commodious business houses and beautiful homes..."

Banks stood on three of the four corners in the center of town. A mill, a foundry, a large tile plant, and a nationally known well machinery manufacturing plant raised the town's employment level.

The pioneers had come, settled, made this their home, and nurtured the growth of the village and the surrounding rich prairie farmland.

Mr. Dunn, one of the founders of Winnebago, writing in later years about his arrival in Minnesota, "I was poor in pocket, but rich in hope, full of life and vigor, and with a determination to make good in the new venture."

He stayed a lifetime in Winnebago and continued to share his talents with the community...and made good in the venture!

At the beginning of the new Century, Winnebago City had a thriving business section with a large assortment of goods. Some of the many factories in town at this time included: The Flour Mill, Brick and Tile Plant, Wagon and Carriage Factory, and several cigar factories. The local industry developed and thrived on the needs of the countryside. The opening of the 20th century found Winnebago City changing from a frontier settlement into a gracious Midwest college town known as 'Winnebago' after 1906. On Main Street, there were three banks, hardware stores, grocery stores, furniture and undertaking, farm machine businesses, jewelry store, and a Bus and Baggage Line. Millinery and tailor shops provided up to date fashions from head to toe.

At this time, Winnebago was a hot bed of baseball! The famous Winnebago Clippers won the state baseball championship in 1909! Legend has it they invented the curve ball.

Music flourished under the leadership of Victor Vannata. In June 1924, the Kid Band won the highest score in music at an Albert Lea contest. In June 1912, a group of progressive citizens formed the First Auto club in Winnebago to help maintain signs and share travel information about the Daniel Boone Trail, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. We know this road as Highway 169.

Andrew C. Dunn, Winnebago's founder, died Jan. 28, 1918. Mrs. Dunn had passed in 1913. The Winnebago

American Legion Post #182 and the VFW were organized in the years following WWI.

In 1923, Interstate Power moved in a force of 12 employees. It was a sad blow for the community when Parker

College closed in 1924, because of financial difficulties, after 36 years of service. In the midst of this reversal of progress, the Canning Factory was built. In 1925, Fairmont Canning Factory #3 was open. It processed cream style corn, with other vegetables as time went on. Experimental work in freezing was done at this plant. From its small beginning with 100 employed in 1925, it grew to more than 1000 seasonal workers and 50 full time employees.

The community and surrounding countryside endured the depression and all that went with the deprivation of that time. As the depression eased, new clubs formed such as Kiwanis, Ladies Auxiliary, Riverside Golf Club, and then, unfortunately, again our citizens were sent overseas to join the fight when the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II.

On May 15, 1952, a recently constructed modern 18-bed hospital building was dedicated. The hospital was part of the community until 1977. It was a nursing facility for a short time. In time, it became the site of the Winnebago Adolescent Treatment Center, which moved to their new facility on the west side of town.

Rural and village school districts were reorganized into one large district in 1951. A new school building was constructed and dedicated in 1955. This complex served the community well until declining enrollment became a factor. The class of 1987 was the last graduating class of Winnebago High School.

Winnebago marked the first 100 years of its founding in 1956 with a large centennial celebration.

The Vietnam era directly impacted our area with those who served in the conflict. There were five young men of our community who lost their lives in the service of our nation.

In the 1960's there was a flurry of construction. The Muir library was built in 1966 as a gift to the town from Mr. and Mrs. Harry Muir. Area communities worked together to raise funds for the swimming pool and shared construction chores. The new Lutheran Church,

the MET building and the Interstate Building became part of the landscape at this time. The 1965 Flood was of huge proportion.

The Winnebago Area Museum was founded in 1977. In 1979, the canning plant closed. It had been purchased in 1955 by Stokely and in turn by United Foods. Plastic pipe manufacturing, small electric motor manufacturing and metal fabricating replaced the processing of vegetables in the village. 

The 125th anniversary of our town was celebrated in 1981 with a well-attended All School Reunion.

The first Harry Foley scholarships were awarded in 1985. These funds for college education are awarded to deserving Winnebago students each year.

It was a difficult time for our Main Street businesses in the summer of 1991 during the highway #169 construction, because of the continual rainy weather that plagued the work.

In 1992, the Winnebago Municipal Center was dedicated. In 1993, there were construction developments on the eastern and western part of our city. It was the beginning of the Parker Oaks expansion and the Ethanol plant and Dixie Carbonic were constructed on the eastern edge of town. The new water tower changed the skyline in 1997. Olive Edelman donated funds in 2000 for a new bathhouse at the swimming pool.

The composition of our Main Street has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. New businesses have recently added a spark and dimension to this prairie town. It has been long and varied journey from the time the pioneers walked through the tall waving prairie grass to this day of whizzing autos on paved highways. Each decade since the founding in 1856 has brought many changes. Each generation in turn has had an influence on the happening within our community, the surrounding area and on the larger stage, our nation.

***"The Winnebago Area Museum would like to pay special tribute and thank you to Millicent Hanson and Annette Jenkins for their contribution in writing the narrative for the story which appears on this website."***

bottom of page