"Desolate Wabasha Prairie" served to describe, for early St. Paul, Minnesota residents, the handful of houses on the edge of the Mississippi that later grew into the substantial city we know as Winona. Perhaps the St. Paulites of the early 1850's had a right--in their metropolitan center of a couple of thousand of hopeful pioneers--to look down upon the scant downriver settlement because Wabasha Prairie, soon to be renamed Winona, boasted then a mere handful of wooden homes and unprepossessing business houses. But what the embryonic Winona lacked in numbers was made up in old-fashioned hospitality. Winona's first community Christmas dinner was recalled in later years by an early settler, Catherine Smith, who leads us to believe that doughnuts fried in coon's grease can be a tasty holiday delicacy. This account is among the Orrin F. Smith Papers in the Minnesota Historical Society.
In the early Winter of 1852, a sleighing party which had for its object the taking to ride in one sleigh, of every lady then a resident in Winona, was gotten up by two young settlers, Irwin Johnson and Edwin Hamilton. The former drove the team while Mr. Hamilton looked after the welfare of the ladies. Every lady resident of the prairie, as it was then called, except two, who did not care to go, but for whom there was ample room, participated in this sleigh ride. Mr. Hamilton, remarked, in delivering the invitations, that the time was not far distant when one sled would not carry all the female residents of this growing town. Stops were made at all the "shanties" then on the prairie and where occupants were found at home calls were made, while at the vacant ones the names of the callers were written in lead pencil upon the door thereof by Mrs. "Elder" Hamilton.
The visits aroused considerable curiosity among the shanty dwellers, as lady visitors were quite unusual. The ride was much enjoyed and on its completion it was decided to give a public dinner on Christmas at which every resident should be present.
The Christmas dinner was given in the upper story of the Winona House on Water street, in which Edwin Hamilton was keeping what was called Bachelor's Hall. The young men set up stoves and Mrs. "Elder" Hamilton and myself looked after the culinary part of the dinner. In the absence of the bird that usually graces the Christmas dinner we were obliged to use coon, or rather several coons, with entrees of venison and wild goose. At the request of the young men, who said it would not be a Christmas feast without them, we fried doughnuts in coon's fat, and they were much relished.
By 11:00 o'clock every resident of Winona, old and young, big and little, except Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gere and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, some thirty in all were present. In addition to these were several from Minnesota City, besides some St. Paul men who were hauling goods on the ice from La Crosse to St. Paul and who shortly before noon broke through the ice on the river opposite the business part of the town. These men were assisted in rescuing their teams and goods by our townsmen and invited to share the hospitalities of our Christmas.
It is needless to say that our guests were surprised at their reception. One of them in a short speech said that their knowledge of Winona was obtained from the St. Paul paper which usually referred to our little town as desolate. Wabasha Prairie. He also expressed his intention of seeing hereafter the town at which they partook of a public Christmas dinner and which included in its menu five kinds of cake, three kinds of pies and plenty of coon and venison.
The remnants of this dinner furnished us with a bountiful supper, of which all partook except one man who had gone over the lake in search of fish. While we were at supper this man came back and excitedly asked for a team and sled with which to haul his catch.
It turned out that this man found an air hole in the ice on the lake and he had but to dip into the water to get all the fish he wanted. This find proved to be of nearly as much benefit to the "Wabashaites" as it did the quails to the children of Israel when in the wilderness--and was the beginning of many fishing trips. I remember one trip on which my husband, accompanied by Edwin Hamilton, caught a great many fish. Mr. Goddard took for a net a woolen shirt that had been tied up at the neck and sleeves and taking a position where the stream was narrow held the improvised net in the creek, while Mr. Hamilton, who had entered the stream further up, drove the fish into the net held by Mr. Goddard.