This story originally appeared on Oct. 9, 1966, in the Winona Daily News.
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church this week commemorates the centennial of the establishment of its Christian day school, a pioneering venture in education destined to emerge as the oldest Winona parochial school to maintain a continuous individual identity. Now offering a kindergarten through ninth, grade educational program for some 175 students, St. Martin’s Lutheran School had its unlikely beginning a century ago with no school building, no budget for its operation and no trained faculty.
The first half-dozen children who constituted the first class at St. Martin’s in 1866 met in the church proper — capitalized a decade earlier with $130 — with desks a makeshift arrangement of the wooden benches which were used as pews for the Sunday worship service.
What the school initially lacked in material assets, however, was more than compensated for in an abundance of another resource: An unflagging dedication of the early congregation of German settlers to provide everything within their means — and, more frequently, even beyond their means — for the spiritual welfare of their children.
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It was this steadfastness of purpose that saw the fledgling school through those first uncertain years and prompted a series of building and expansion programs during the next 100 years.
St. Martin’s School traces its history back to an era in Winona which probably stands as the greatest church and school building boom period in the city’s history.
The first residents of the riverfront community upon their arrival set themselves to the task of providing housing and erecting business buildings to sustain the economic life of the settlement. That completed, they turned their attention to the need for houses of religious worship and, almost simultaneously, to erecting the first, primitive educational facilities.
The earliest history of schools in Winona remains rather obscure but it’s thought that around 1852 a teenage girl, Angelina Gere, assembled a dozen or so youngsters for a period of elementary instruction in what may have been the first class to meet in the community.
In 1853 there was a subscription school for about 25 pupils organized in a building at East Front and Franklin streets and in that year what is generally considered the first public school, to be organized in Winona County was established at Minnesota City.
There are records of a class of 100 pupils meeting in crowded quarters over a harness shop in 1856 — when the waiting list for enrollment in the school matched the number of students actually attending — and it was in that year that the Rev. L.F.E. Krause came to Winona from the Lutheran Church’s Buffalo Synod in Wisconsin to help organize 15 adults in what was to become St. Martin’s Church.
The seven families who were members of this first congregation spent $130 to buy a half lot at what is now 352 E. Fifth St. as a site for an 18- by 30-foot edifice that was dedicated shortly before Christmas in 1856.
For the next 10 years, the church more often than not was without a resident pastor and its survival during this critical period is credited in large part to a handful of devout elders who kept the tiny congregation together.
One of these was Tobias Leeb, one of the original organizers, who provided music for the services with a small portable organ he brought to church under one arm each Sunday, carrying under the other a book of sermons to be read at times when an ordained pastor was not present.
It was in 1865 that Leeb and the three other elders of the church issued a call to a young Toledo, Ohio, minister, the Rev. Philip von Rohr, to assume charge of the struggling flock in Winona. Pastor von Rohr accepted the call, was installed June 27, 1866, and it was he who was responsible for the beginning of St. Martin’s Lutheran School.
Within a week of the arrival of the young pastor in Winona, he set in motion the organization of a parochial school, enrolling six children of the congregation in the first class.
Interest in the project was forthcoming immediately and by that fall the enrollment had reached 80, with the pupils crowded onto benches which had to be rearranged each week to accommodate the congregation at its Sunday services.
Three years later the first full-time teacher, Joseph Mueller, a nephew of Pastor Von Rohr, was hired to take care of the expanding enrollment. The congregation, itself, was overtaxing the facilities of the original church building and in 1870 a second church, this one 36 by BO feet and costing about $5,000, was built by the congregation which found it necessary to obtain a $1,000 loan at 12 percent interest paid in advance to finance the project.
In these years, St. Martin’s was one of several parochial schools to come into existence.
There are, indications that sometime in the period between 1857 and I860 a class had been organized by members of St. Thomas Catholic Church but this school was suspended around 1860 and it wasn’t until 1874 that a new St Thomas educational program was established. Probably the first Catholic parochial school in Winona was St. Joseph’s School, organized by the German Catholic parish in 1858 and operated until St. Joseph’s and St. Thomas parishes were merged in the organization of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
By 1880, swelling enrollments at St. Martin’s dictated the need for additional classroom space.
In that year, the congregation purchased two lots at the northwest corner of East 5th andy Chestnut streets, one block east of the present school site, and erected a one-story school building. Costing $4,000, including the $800 payment for the land, this was the first separate building provided specifically for school purposes.
In its early years, a majority of the congregation was concentrated generally in the vicinity of the church.
As the city expanded there was an increasing westward distribution of members and to accommodate these families living in the West End a branch school was established at the corner of West King and Minnesota streets in 1890. The frame building erected on a site purchased for $800, was constructed at a cost of $1,200 and the church’s assistant pastor was assigned to instruct classes in the branch school.
A. year after the creation of the branch school the then 11-year old school on East Fifth Street was experiencing new growing pains and in 1891 a second story was added to the brick main school building.
Miss Hedwig Granzow, 352 l/2 E. Wabasha St., remembers enrolling in the first grade at St. Martin’s soon after the second story addition was completed.
“We had two teachers at that time,” Miss Granzow recalls, “G.W. Kunkel and L.F. Zuelow. There were maybe 60 pupils or so and the school had four rooms, two upstairs and two downstairs.”
The two rooms on the first floor were used for classrooms, Miss Granzow says, and the two upstairs for various activities.
“The second floor,” she remembers, “was for entertainments and such and the Ladies Aid would meet there. There’d be sewing bees from time to time.”
From its beginning, children attending St. Martin’s were, almost without exception, from German-speaking families.
Miss Granzow recalls that in the mornings classes were conducted in German in religion, reading and composition. In the afternoons there were classes in English reading, writing and spelling. Three classes would meet in each room with one teacher assigned to each of the two rooms.
Preparations for the annual Christmas Eve service in the church, when the school children participated in the program, were a highlight of each year and Miss Granzow remembers especially the year — “I think it was in fifth grade” — when the traditional candles that had illuminated the Christmas tree were replaced by electric lights.
In 1911 an addition was built at a cost of $1,800 at the West End school. Kunkel was transferred from the main school to take charge of the west branch and Miss Marie Kieckbusch was employed, as a second teacher.
The West End school continued as a branch for another 10 years until it was closed in 1921.
At this time, too, the church was anticipating the need for a new and larger school facility to replace the building constructed in. the last century.
Several years of planning culminated in the construction of the present building at East Fifth and Liberty streets which was dedicated in June 1931 in the 75th anniversary year of the church’s founding.
The longest period of continuous service as principal during St. Martin’s history was that of Max W. Hackbarth who was installed as principal of the main school in 1910 and remained until 1931 when Traugott W. Zuherbier assumed the post.
Dr. Alfred yon Rohr Sauer was acting principal from 1946 to 1947 when Ernanuel Arndt was appointed and he was succeeded, in turn, by F. H. Broker, currently principal of the school.