Text and Photographs By Monia Lippi
“Floating Winona”, is dedicated to the special inhabitants of The Latsch Island Boathouse Community and the natural beauties of the Upper Mississippi River.
All the images are shot on film with a 6×9 medium format camera, C-Prints 11”x14”and 30”x 40” Inches.
There have always been people in the United States who choose to live in strange places: unlikely, out of the way, difficult and often unobserved. The Latsch Island Boathouse Community in Winona, Minnesota is one of these places.
It’s a small reality, but it’s part of a strong American tradition, though one that seems increasingly to be dying out as we race toward modernity and the people of the Latsch Island Boathouse Community embody an interesting alternative way of life, living on floating houses, called “Boathouses”, on the Mississippi’s waters.
About one hundred structures line the north shore of the island, moored to century old cottonwoods, surrounded by forested bluffs and rocky outcrops.
The City of Winona began in the early 1800’s as a lumber community. The Mississippi River was used to float thousands of logs to mills that lined the river and the loggers lived in homes floating on rafts in order to keep an eye on the lumber. As the mills disappeared, some stayed behind to raise families and continue to live on the boathouses for many generations. Today, a small community of about twenty still live year-round in the boathouses: a district judge, county defense attorney, independent carpenters, single and married parents, a fortune teller, national-park naturalist, a journalist, teachers, weavers, painters, environmental and peace activists, independent writers, birders, factory and food co-op workers, university students and elementary-school rebels, interesting and funny characters that share in this way of living. Many of them came from different states and even country and they all have different story of how they arrived to leave here.
As one resident said, “I enjoy floating through life. I came all the way from England to float through life.” Another said, “Water is everything, like God, and I want to float with God every day.”
Each boathouse is custom built, a unique example of vernacular architecture, a term used to describe methods of construction that take advantage of local resources to adapt to local needs. This type of architecture tends to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists. Often dismissed as crude and unrefined, it often offers interesting solutions to the technical and functional problems of low budget construction, using recycled materials with surprising solutions and a lot of freedom and fantasy.
Over the years, many of the residents had contributed to the Island’s poor reputation: loud parties, alcohol and drugs were the norm for many years during the 70’s and 80’s. The island residents were called “boat people” or “river rats” and viewed as outcasts—socially, politically, and environmentally. After long years of legal battles, the WBA’s By-laws, Rules and Regulations, Mooring Agreement and Building Codes were passed unanimously in winter, 1997. The court recognized the legitimacy of the community and a legal immunity was granted to the boathouses. Today the community is considered part of Winona’s cultural heritage.
Being there is like being in a different world. It is a life lived surrounded by nature but also by the city nearby, divided by the mighty Mississippi. A nice town where there are jobs opportunity, schools, including two Public Universities, a Public Library, hospitals, clinics and nice shops, grocery stores, restaurants, café’-bars and a movie theater. This community thus becomes an interesting combination of living with a strong nature and the city. This island is a real and interesting cohabitation between the habitants, the power of nature and the river. A different concept of living, combined with the survival skills of the people, creates a different socio-natural and cultural condition and an answer to a way of living on the water.
These floating structures are unique and full of individual character. Strange objects hang about–– tools and musical instruments, tables and chairs, bicycles, canoes, a barbecue grill. Some residents have all the modern conveniences, others do with very few. Some have electricity or generators, solar panels, hot and cold running water, propane or wood stoves, gas ranges, air conditioners, refrigerators, telephones, computers with internet connection, satellite dishes, televisions, compost toilets and portable potties. All these bizarre boathouses and their particular inhabitants float on a big landscape of water, the most of the months, following the changes of the different seasons.
During the cold winter months here life change completely. The island and the river environment become an immense silent white space covered by ice and snow. The blue-green-brown water of the upper Mississippi is no longer liquid but a white solid ice mass, the thin brown lines of the surrounding trees cutting the white sky. The boathouses have the appearance of normal houses, in the middle of a huge white field. The residents walk, run, skate, work and build on the ice. Even though it’s very cold, it’s easier to build or fix a boathouse on a solid ground.
Their values try to root in self-sufficiency and ecological models, with a lineage to Thoreau’s construction of his own house from recycled wood. The floating houses exist outside of the usual economic systems dictated by commercial real estate interests, a turning away from suburban developments towards a more communal lifestyle, an alternative model of human habitation, that manifests ideas covered in Sybil Moholy-Nagy’s “Native Geniuses in Anonymous Architecture” and Bernard Rudolfsky’s “Architecture without Architects.”
Many of the structures have evolved from boat garages and simple slips into two-story cabins with sleeping lofts, held in place by ropes, steel poles, chains and even grapevines. Most float upon 55-gallon barrels sealed by plumber’s goop or silicone, kept buoyant by quarter-sized chunks of dry ice inside the plastic or by inflation via tire valves. Boathouse owners build carefully measured racks to hold barrels beneath their homes. They design wooden “poppers” with long metal hooks to pry barrels into the racks, usually swimming beneath their homes in the process.
For a boathouse to float at the right level on the water, it is important to make an accurate calculation of the number of barrels needed to float the structure. Calculations must allow for furnishings, visitors, wind and snow.
Before 1907, the stretch of land in the river went simply by the name Island 72. In 1907, the island was named in honor of John A. Latsch, a philanthropist who gave this island to the city of Winona during the early 1900s as a green park. Loggers lived in homes floating on rafts during the late 1800s. People raised families in boathouses tied to Winona’s shorelines during the Great Depression. In fact the “Latsch Island Boathouse Community” has a unique history, spanning more than a hundred years. It hasn’t always been easy for the people. After a century of existence, the community needed to establish “The Winona Boathouse Association” (WBA) in 1991 to be a legal entity to defend their grandfathered right to continue to live on the river. The DNR accused the island residents of using a public property for private purposes and using the river in an “inappropriate” way.
During the spring floods, when the winter snow melts from the mountains and during heavy rains, the river can rise up fifteen to seventeen feet, ten to twelve feet above the island’s banks. Once again the landscape was very different with Latsch Island under the Mississippi water’s flood. Now the inhabitants has to deal with the different problems of their boathouses that are tied to big trees and heavy and steel poles, driven into the ground of the river, fixed with brackets and bolted to the poles. As the water rises or lowers, the boathouses float along the length of the poles, and literally “go with the flow.” When the island is covered in water the inhabitants need a boat or canoe to reach their boathouses, trying to find the best way home, between branches, chairs and picnic tables and the big trees, pushed by the strong and dangerous currents.
The period of the spring flood can be about two or three months, from when the water starts to rise until it’s possible to drive and walk again on the dry island. For most of the residents, it’s a fun and beautiful moment where all the boathouses are completely surrounded by a mirror of water, even though it’ s more complicated to leave or arrive at home, always before the sunset or it will be too dangerous, because the island in the night is completely in the dark. Every year the spring floods are different and the mighty Mississippi, combined with the rains, is really unpredictable. It was interesting to see Latsch Island and his Boathouse Community’s day-life change at the rhythm of the seasons on the flow of The Big River.
I tried to visually capture specific moments of this interesting reality that is an example of an American style of “freedom and dreams” that doesn’t happen everywhere.
I photographed Latsch Island’ s Boathouses and their inhabitants, in the summer of 2007, 2008, the winter of 2008 and the spring 2011 during the flood, trying to understand the spirit of this particular place.