The History of The Village at Winona®
The area surrounding Eagle Lake, now known as Winona Lake, was originally the home of the Potawatomi Indians. A treaty was signed with the tribe in 1834, and the first white settlers arrived soon after. In 1881, the Beyer brothers, attracted by many natural springs around the lake, purchased the tract of land. There they constructed spring houses which served as cooling systems for their dairy business. In 1887 the Beyers enhanced the natural beauty of their farmland and platted it into a resort known as Spring Fountain Park. Prominent features included Garfield Park and the Eagle Lake Hotel, today’s Winona Hotel.
In 1894 Dr. Solomon Dickey, a leader of the Presbyterian Church, dreamed of building a “kind of religious chautauqua.” His search led him to Eagle Lake where he purchased Spring Fountain Park with the financial backing of his denomination. A corporation known as the Winona Assembly and Summer School Association was formed and the first conference was held the following summer.
The succeeding years were a period of tremendous growth for the Assembly. Led by a board of directors including Thomas Kane, H. J. Heinz, John Studebaker and William Jennings Bryan, many structures were erected and improvements made on the property. A major project in 1902 was the construction of the canal, which transformed a low-lying peninsula into McDonald Island, named for the man who financed the endeavor. Many cottages and homes were also built at this time, including Dr. Dickey’s Killarney Castle, the Beyer Home and the Swiss Terrace. In less than a decade, the number of seasonal visitors rose from 35 to more than 10,000.
An important aspect of Winona’s early days was the remarkable educational movement that took place. Founded were the Agricultural Institute, the Technical Institute and Winona College, a four-year, liberal arts school.
By 1905 the Park was well established, and the schools were growing. The Winona Inter-Urban Railway, linking Winona to various cities, was financially profitable. Chautauqua programs held in the old Auditorium brought distinguished speakers and musicians. The period of 1905-14 was the “Golden Age” in Winona’s history with summer attendance reaching 250,000.
Around the turn of the century, a young baseball-player-turned-evangelist began to call Winona Lake home. Assisted by his song leader, Homer Rodeheaver, and pianist-composer, B.D. Ackley, Billy Sunday’s dynamic ministry reached thousands across the country. The Sunday’s built their home, Mt. Hood, in Winona Lake in 1911; Rainbow Point was the location chosen by Rodeheaver for his “Rainbow Cottage.”
1915 brought a significant setback: financial ruin. Due in part to losses in railroad revenue, the Assembly was forced to declare bankruptcy. Reorganization followed with the formation of the Winona Assembly and Bible Conference, enabling Winona to once again host many gatherings.
1920 marked the founding of the Winona Lake School of Theology by Dr. G. Cambell Morgan. It was also the year construction began on the Billy Sunday Tabernacle. Seating 7,500, the structure was completed the following year. During the ’20s, conferences continued to meet, and the Chautauqua programs attracted crowds to see and hear famous personalities. The programs were eventually discontinued because of lack of funding, which led to another reorganization. In 1937-38 the Winona Lake Christian Assembly, Inc. was formed with religious conventions being the chief focus.
The newly reorganized Christian Assembly was aided in its efforts by several religious organizations who moved their headquarters to Winona Lake. The Free Methodist Church, Grace Brethren Church, Oriental Mission Society, and Grace College and Seminary located their world headquarters in Winona Lake. The growth of these institutions and the demise of the Chautauqua programming helped Winona Lake to become known as “The World’s Largest Bible Conference.”
The decades of the fifties and sixties witnessed a revival in the fortunes of Winona Lake as the Assembly hosted conferences throughout the summer season. Groups such as Moody Bible Institute, Grace Brethren Church, Youth for Christ, and General Association of Regular Baptist Churches came to Winona Lake for their annual conventions and conferences. The late fifties under the direction of R.G. LeTourneau claimed annual attendances of nearly sixty thousand people.
A shift in consumer tastes, a lack of vision and deteriorating facilities led to another reorganization in 1968. Grace Schools took over operating control of the Assembly as well as assuming the accumulated debt. The school continued to operate conferences in the summer while utilizing the facilities for dormitory and other school uses in the remaining months. By the late 1980’s a continued lack of investment in the facilities and declining numbers of attendees led to the termination of all summer conferences and programming. The seventies and eighties also saw a severe decline in much of the housing stock and infrastructure in the rest of the community. By the late 1980’s, Winona Lake was headquarters only for the Grace Brethren Church and was heavily populated with sub-standard buildings and slum housing.
In 1994, Winona Restoration Company, a partnership of local entrepreneurs Dane Miller and Brent Wilcoxson, took on the challenge of restoring some of the lost glory to Winona Lake. The purchase of the original Assembly grounds and the restoration of nearly thirty properties into a historic summer resort led to an economic resurgence of the community. The creation of commercial and residential areas using restored original structures has helped Winona Lake to be recognized as a prime location for visitors and residents alike.
For more information contact the Winona History Center and Billy
Sunday Home museum at (574) 372-5193.