Back to top

Winona Normal School

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Winona Normal School

The main building of the Winona Normal School, built in 1869, destroyed by fire in 1922. Date unknown. Used with the permission of Winona Historical Society.

The Winona Normal School was Minnesota’s first teacher-training school when it opened in 1860. The school fostered many innovations, including the state’s first “model school” program, a kind of laboratory school for training teachers. Over the years, the normal school evolved into a four-year state college and then into Winona State University.

European Americans from the East settled Winona in 1851 and sought to create all the cultural resources they associated with eastern cities. Dr. John Ford, a physician who advocated public education, campaigned for a “normal school” in Winona. The purpose of a normal school was to expand basic education beyond the wealthy by preparing a large cohort of teachers trained to effectively develop their students’ ability to read, write and do basic math. After being exposed to the idea in Europe, Horace Mann organized the first American normal school in Massachusetts in 1839. From there the ideas spread west.

In 1858, Dr. Ford persuaded the newly created Minnesota Legislature to establish a system for creating normal schools, and the following year, he succeeded in getting the Winona Normal School chartered as the state’s first teacher training school. The school established a three-year curriculum and admitted its first students in 1860.

By the end of its second school year, however, many of the students and some of the faculty had enlisted in the Union Army, forcing the school to close for the duration of the Civil War. It reopened in 1865 under the leadership of William F. Phelps, an educational reformer. He established a ‘model school” in which Phelps and his staff taught local children. Normal school students learned to teach by observing the faculty and by teaching under the guidance of the faculty.

Both Winona and the normal school prospered and grew. In 1869, Phelps secured funding to build a large, three-story brick building in Second Empire style on the edge of downtown Winona. By this time, normal schools had also been established at Mankato and St. Cloud, soon to be followed by schools at Moorhead, Duluth, and Bemidji. By the end of the nineteenth century, the normal schools had added new admission requirements and convinced the legislature to make a normal school degree the equivalent of a teaching license. In the 1880s, the Winona Normal School, under the leadership of Irwin Shepard, founded the first kindergarten in the state as part of the model-school program, and also the first training program for kindergarten teachers.

The Winona Normal School added a library building in 1909, a dormitory in 1910, and a Model School Building in 1915, all designed by Minnesota state architect Clarence H. Johnston. In 1921, the normal schools were upgraded to teachers’ colleges with a four-year degree program.

The Winona Teachers College suffered a setback in 1922 when the main building was destroyed in a spectacular fire. The legislature quickly appropriated $632,000 to build College Hall, also designed by Johnston. It is a massive building centered around a gymnasium and 900-seat auditorium featuring a pipe organ.

Although enrollments declined during the Depression, the school built a new library partially with Public Works Administration funds in 1938. Another New Deal program, the Federal Arts Project, funded the creation of murals by John Socha depicting early Winona history in College Hall. The murals provide evidence that European Americans chose to imagine their conquest of the region as a reality to which the Dakota willingly acquiesced.

In 1946, the teachers’ colleges were allowed to expand their curriculum beyond teacher training, and in 1957 the legislature changed their name to “state colleges.” Although Winona State College now had many academic departments, the model school continued to thrive as a laboratory for educational innovation. Model-school faculty developed a collaborative approach to teaching and experimented with such ideas as modular scheduling and outdoor education.

The Winona model school came to an end in 1971 because there were many more students seeking teacher certification than could be accommodated in the model school. Students would now practice teaching in local elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. In 1975, the legislature designated the state colleges as state universities. In the twenty-first century, Winona State University continues to make the preparation of teachers a major focus of its curriculum.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklin. The History of Winona County, Minnesota. 2 vols. Chicago: H. C. Cooper, Jr. and Co., 1913.

DuFresne, R. A. Winona State University: A History of One Hundred Twenty-Five Years. Winona, MN: Winona State University, 1985.

Gaut, Greg. “Model School Building and College Hall of the Winona Normal School.” National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, 2013. Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, Department of Administration, St. Paul.

Henderson, Peter V. Her Star Shall Not Dim: A Sesquicentennial History of Winona State University. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company, 2007.

Mass Communication Department, Winona State University, “Winona State University Phelps Lab School Living History 2007.” DVD. Winona: Winona State University, 2007.

Ruggles, C. O. Historical Sketches and Notes: Winona State Normal School 1860–1910. Winona, MN: Winona Normal School Board, 1910.

Selle, Ervin S., ed. The Winona State Teachers College: Historical Notes, 1910–1935. Winona, MN: N.p., 1935.

Talbot, Jean. First State Normal School 1860—Winona State College 1960 Winona, MN: Winona State College, 1959, 1960, 1961. (A bound volume of several issues of the Quarterly Bulletin of Winona State College.)

Related Images

Winona Normal School
Winona Normal School
Postcard depicting Winona Normal School
Postcard depicting Winona Normal School
Winona Normal School
Winona Normal School
Maxwell Hall
Maxwell Hall
Model School gymnastics demonstration
Model School gymnastics demonstration
Somsen Hall
Somsen Hall
Somsen Hall main entrance
Somsen Hall main entrance

Turning Point

In 1859, educational reformer Dr. John Ford convinces the Minnesota Legislature to charter the state’s first normal school in Winona.



The Minnesota Legislature creates the State Normal School Board, which is authorized to charter and partially support a normal school in the first district to raise $5,000.


Winona raises the money and successfully petitions to organize the state’s first normal school. Classes begin in September 1860.


The Winona Normal School closes because many of the faculty and students have joined the Union Army.


The school reopens under the leadership of educational reformer William F. Phelps, who establishes a “laboratory” or “model” school that enrolls local children who are taught by normal school faculty and student teachers.


The Normal School builds a large brick building just south of Winona’s downtown.


The school adds a library building designed by Minnesota state architect Clarence H. Johnston.


The Model School Building opens on campus. Clarence H. Johnston designed it to accommodate the school’s innovative approach to teaching students how to teach. Over 200 Winona children attend the school.


The Winona Normal School becomes the Winona Teachers College and, for the first time, offers a four-year bachelor of education degree.


The original main building is completely destroyed by a fire.


College Hall, the new main building, is completed. Designed by Clarence H. Johnston, it features a large auditorium, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and expansive spaces for offices and classrooms.


The State Teachers College Board passes a resolution to change College Hall's name to Somsen Hall in honor of former resident director Stephen H. Somsen.


With the aid of the Public Works Administration, the college builds a new library, now called Maxwell Hall.


The state teachers’ colleges broaden their curriculum beyond teacher education. Consistent with its new role, the Winona Teachers College becomes Winona State College in 1957.


The state closes the Winona model school because it can no longer accommodate the growing number of student teachers seeking certification.


Winona State College becomes Winona State University.


College Hall (now Somsen Hall) and the Model School Building (now Phelps Hall) are added to the National Register of Historic Places based on their association with the development of education in Minnesota.