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A Brief History of Rice County

Rice County comprises a land area of 496 square miles in the southeast portion of Minnesota, approximately 50 miles south of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Rice County, which is basically rural, has only two cities with a population of more than 12,000 - Faribault and Northfield. The northeastern area of the county is characterized by rolling hills and small woods, with sparsely located farms. The main crops include corn, soybeans, and wheat. With its large number of lakes, the western portion of the county attracts outdoor enthusiasts and summer campers. The northeastern region includes Nerstrand Woods State Park. In addition to Faribault, the county seat, and Northfield, there are four small cities and fourteen townships. The 1980 census reports the county’s population at 46,087.

The county was settled by various ethnic groups, including Scandinavians, Germans, French Canadians, Irish and Eastern Europeans. Alexander Faribault, an agent of the North American Fur Company and by all accounts an honest trader, traveled from Fort Snelling to what is now Rice County in 1826. He came to trade for furs with the Wapakhute Indians at their village at Cannon Lake, and by 1835 had convinced the Wapakhutes to move to a better trapping location at the meeting point of the Cannon and Straight rivers. This unsettled territory would become the town of Faribault.

When Faribault was officially laid out in 1854, there were more Indian teepees than there were settler’s houses. A frame house built by Alexander Faribault in 1853 was probably the first of its kind in southern Minnesota.

The first saw mill came to town in 1854, ending the predominance of fur trading, and establishing an industrial presence in Faribault. By 1865, the city had a population of over 2,000, including several churches as well as banks, schools, hardware and dry goods stores. Heavy industry in the still newly civilized metropolis included flour and saw mills, furniture factories, and a woolen mill. There were also four breweries in town.

The county itself was named for Henry Mower Rice (1817-1894), who came west to Minnesota from Vermont in 1839, and who tended a store at Fort Snelling for a number of years. While living in Faribault, Rice was a Representative for the Territory of Minnesota and a personal friend of the town’s namesake. At different periods in his life, he was a senator for three different states: Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri.

Other small towns were simultaneously maturing in Rice County. Dundas grew famous for its flourmills long before Minneapolis did. Morristown became the milling and trade center for southwestern Rice County. Lonsdale grew when the railroad came through, and the village of Veseli gained a reputation for its abundance of musical talent and fine brass bands.

Cannon City began to grow quickly, in the hope of becoming the county seat. Mysteriously, when Faribault was chosen instead, Cannon City quit growing, and today is only a cluster of houses.

Rice County’s second largest city is Northfield, also on the Cannon River. Founder John North arrived there about 1855, immediately constructing a sawmill, a flourmill, and a frame house. He almost became a one-man town.

Northfield is famous for the Jesse James gang bank robbery of 1876, when James and seven others tried to rob the First National Bank. However, a stubborn cashier  refused to open the safe. Northfield citizens proceeded to open fire on the would-be robbers as they fled, and the gang was driven out of town bereft of money and two of its members. The cashier and an innocent bystander were also killed.

Jesse James

Northfield has traditionally been known for its two distinguished colleges. Carleton College opened its doors in 1867, and St. Olaf followed seven years later. Carleton at one time published the only magazine in the U.S. devoted exclusively to astronomy, and Ole Rolvaag, author of Giants in the Earth, taught at St. Olaf for many years.

Faribault has historically also had a good reputation in the educational field, with many public and parochial schools. Bethlehem Academy was established in 1865 when Alexander Faribault bought the school, a house and a piano. He also donated a cow to the facility.

The most notable of the private schools, though, were founded by the Episcopal Church and the Right Reverend Henry Whipple. Whipple stands out in state history for his humane treatment of Indians. His mission was to convert the Indians to Christianity, and he won enough trust from them to be known as “Straight Tongue.”

Rice County also remains a blend of agriculture and industry. Faribault is still famous for its woolen products, as well as its garden and nursery industry. Northfield’s main business is education, with a typical population of over 5,000 college students in a city of 12,000. Towns like Lonsdale are growing once again, this time as suburbs of Minneapolis.

Today, Rice County remains rich in history. Many buildings in the County have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The list includes the Rice County Courthouse and the Social Services Building. In 1873, the corner lots where the Social Services Building now stands were purchased, and permanent quarters for the courthouse and jail were constructed on the sites of the present county buildings in 1874. The jail was condemned in 1910 and replaced by the present structure the same year. This structure was the Rice County Jail until the Law Enforcement Center was built in 1975 and the building was remodeled for the Rice County Social Services Department. In 1931, a disastrous fire destroyed the towering French Second Empire courthouse that had been constructed in 1874. After a bitter controversy over whether to use the 1923 fireproof wings as a nucleus for a new building, the ruins were demolished and the present building constructed. The new courthouse was completed in 1934. The courthouse is of the Art Deco style - a well-preserved example of the type of courthouses in a few Minnesota counties in the 1930’s.


Cities in Rice County

Click on the Rice County Map to learn more about each city.


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