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Winona, the once thriving town of Emmons County

7 min read

Even though it no longer exists, Winona was the oldest town created in Emmons County, North Dakota, 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, initially founded with the name of “Devil’s Colony”, it was built to serve the soldiers at Fort Yates as well as the few farmers in the area.
During the 1880s it was the largest town between Bismarck, North Dakota and Pierre, South Dakota. The first school in the county was built there in 1884 and the county’s first newspaper was published there in 1885.

Actually the town had its beginning during the winter of 1874 and ’75.
It was 1873 when 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, but they were restricted from building on the west side of the river, above all because they could not own land on the Reservation. So they went across to the east side of the river where a name named 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, while Marsh had a larger building where he put in a stock of whiskey. 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 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, and 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.
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.
The name Devil’s Colony didn’t seem no longer appropriate, so the Indian name of Winona was chosen instead.

Following the Custer Massacre in 1876, 3,000 troops, 2,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, were stationed across the river at Fort Yates, named after Captain George Yates who was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That meant more activity at Winona.
It was a boom, and Charley Patterson, the Winona 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, including nine saloons.
Winona and vicinity has no equal” was the oft repeated slogan.
North of the town was an oval race track, and the many horsemen around made horse racing.
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 and lumber.
Inside a typical store were the two long counters, on one side the candy counter, enclosed with glass, with long sticks of horehound and striped peppermint candies, as well as licorice in many shapes, including heavy sticks, shoe strings and pipes. And there was a case for cigars and cigarette markings for rolling.
On the other 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. A large round cheese was under a screen cover, and three-cornered pieces would be cut off as desired.
Back against the wall were shelves for a few canned goods of such as sardines, salmon, tomatoes, and baking powder. Then there were yeast cakes and soda and coffee beans in bags of one pound each to grind directly in your kitchen.
Smoked hams and bacons wrapped in heavy paper bags hung on the wall.
The counter on the other side of the store was devoted largely to clothing, dress goods and shoes, what was needed by people of the time.
Back in the rear of the store were various items of hardware, cookware, and tools, as well as 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, true 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.
One lady, for example, was a school teacher but found “more lucrative” ways of making money.
She was a poker player, as well as a good business woman, and later she married a rancher, such an Ott Black, and lived the last of her years on the ranch which she managed until she died.
Of course, gambling was a part of the life of the town. 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, don’t ask me if true or not, 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”.
Another story tells that one man, a little too obstreperous, was hit over the head with a cuspidor by one of the saloon girls. She and the owner of the saloon dragged the body into the back shed and, as it was winter, they left it there until the ground thawed in the spring so it could be buried.

There was also 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. His 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 told of the body buried in the cellar. The kegs were taken away, but no doubt, the remains of the body are still in the cellar.

Now back to the beginning.
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 Fort Yates, and 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, which drew much trade away from the town.
But perhaps the final and most telling blow was the removal of the federal troops from Fort Yates in 1895.
After that, the economy of the town withered away fast.
Now all the evidence of the once thriving town of Emmons County are the scars on the sod or cellar holes where the buildings once existed, and the once popular race track, a perfect oval, can be seen from the air with its difference in growth of the grass that has taken over.

Images from web – Google Research. Local sources