Summering on Eagle Bluff

By Caroline C. Morris

“Have you ever enjoyed a week in a summer cottage on the shore of the Mississippi river, witnessed the sun rise and set over the hills near by, swam with the kids in the river…hustled water, ice, groceries n’ everything to keep the family and yourself happy?” This description of a week’s vacation on the Mississippi was written nearly 100 years ago, but could just as easily have been written yesterday. The part about hustling “groceries n’ everything” is particularly familiar.

This postcard, published and distributed by the Spence McCord Drug Co. in La Crosse between about 1905 and 1920, depicts one of the summer homes on Eagle Bluff, just north of La Crescent, MN. Starting in the 1880s, wealthy La Crosse citizens began building summer getaways on Eagle Bluff. La Crosse resident Frank Powell started the trend, building a cabin that “boasted all the comforts which one could expect in those days of an abode of that sort,” according to a 1920 La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press article. Over the next few decades, several more “summer residences” sprang up on Eagle Bluff, and Frank Powell’s original cabin went through several upgrades. By 1920, it was the summer home of T.H. Spence, the owner of La Crosse’s Spence McCord Drug Company, and probably the cabin depicted in this postcard.

“Summer residences” became popular for a number of reasons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For La Crosse residents looking to distinguish themselves from the pack, the cottages were a symbol of prestige. A select few had the resources to build a second home, and the leisure to inhabit it, particularly in the late nineteenth century.

By the early twentieth century, however, cabins and fresh air assumed new importance for Americans of all means. In 1920, the La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press described a cabin vacation as “life in the open – with cool breezes blowing across spacious screened porches during the hot days and nights of summer, and fresh, pure air untainted by dust and smoke, filling one’s lungs upon awakening.” Several decades of industrialization had left cities cramped and polluted. Asthma and polio were “new” and alarming diseases that seemed to dwell in cities, and people began to seek refuge in the woods, or by the side of lakes, rivers, and oceans. The Mississippi River bluffs provided both woods and water, and rental cabins became a popular destination.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.