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The Richest Man in Minnesota

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Dakota people living along the Mississippi near Winona, Minnesota, had an unusual way of counting a man's wealth. They considered a man rich when he died not by what he had kept for himself, but by what he had given away. By their reckoning, John Latsch was one of the richest men in all of Minnesota.

The Dakota knew Latsch well. He had been their playmate as a young boy. His wealth was less apparent to others around Winona. Although he inherited a thriving wholesale grocery business from the father, Latsch, a teetotaler, lived a quiet and unassuming life. He owned a large house, but only lived in part of it. He never owned a car, and seldom rode in one. His favorite boat was a canoe, and his favorite relaxation was to paddle up a slough to one of the small Mississippi islands, string up a hammock, and lunch on crackers and buttermilk.

By custom, the private land along the Mississippi, including the islands, was open to anyone. But one June the farmer who owned the island Latsch had chosen for the day chased him off into a thunderstorm.

That was all it took. The next day Latsch bought the island and all the surrounding bottomland and opened it all to the public. John Latsch did not stop there. He kept on buying woods, swamps, marshes, sloughs and islands along the Mississippi—land no one could possibly want or use, except for hunters, fishermen, naturalists, and river rats like himself. By the time he was through, John Latsch had bought more than 18,000 acres. All of this he deeded to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to cities and towns to preserve as wilderness forever. Seventy percent-day Winona sits on Latsch land. He gave Wisconsin Merrick State Park, Perrot State Park and Trempealeau Mountain. He gave Winona 7,000 acres of shoreline, along with Latsch and Whitewater State Parks.

The Dakota would be pleased to know that their version of wealth proved itself true. The riches John Latsch gave away in his lifetime continued to accumulate far beyond what it might have done in a bank vault. His 18,000 acres became the model for the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge running from the foot of Lake Pepin to Rock Island, a safe haven for migrating ducks, birds, fish, animals, and flowers and trees, all free to the public.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.