Owatonna Blends Heritage With Modern Appeal

With its shady streets, numerous parks, winding river (though it’s named “Straight”), and well-cared for homes, Owatonna has the look and feel of a welcoming, easygoing community. Today’s visitors to this southeastern Minnesota city along I-35 come for its great shopping, at Cabela’s and an outlet mall, its architecture and historic sites.

But for some of its past residents, Owatonna holds bittersweet memories. From the 1880s to the 1940s, 19,000 children spent part or all of their childhoods at the orphanage here–the State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. By 1922, it was the third largest orphanage in the country, home to about 500 children. Most of these children weren’t really orphans, but were from poor families, or had lost one parent, and their families were deemed unable to care for them.

One former resident of the orphanage, Harvey Ronglien, was determined that the stories of these children be told, and helped developed the State School Orphanage Museum that opened in 1993 in the institution’s main building, which now houses city offices. A memorial outside carries this inscription from Ronglien: “May the love you lacked in life now be your reward in heaven.”

Inside, the building has displays of letters, indenture contracts, clothes, toys and numerous photos. But the most compelling part of this humble museum’s exhibits are the reminiscences by former residents. They recall the harsh discipline, chores, plain food, separation from siblings, and assignment to families as indentured servants. But they also remember movie night, Christmas, putting on plays, adoption into loving families, and the sense of family among the children. Outside, almost 200 children are buried in the cemetery. The small museum is a moving tribute to those who spent their childhoods in this institution, and a reminder of how different society’s view of children’s welfare was a hundred years ago.

The orphanage campus, now called West Hills, is off of State Avenue; the museum is open weekdays and weekend afternoons and admission is free.

More of Owatonna’s history is told at the Village of Yesteryear at the county fairgrounds. A dozen historic buildings from the area have been moved here, including log cabins, an 1868 mansion, a railroad depot, country schoolhouse and blacksmith shop.

Old car and plane buffs will enjoy the Heritage Halls museum, located along I-35 northeast of town. Only a couple of years old, it’s housed in a distinctive building designed to look like an old train depot. The collection includes 14 cars ranging from a 1912 Maxwell to a 1950s sports car. There are early tractors, a 1914 Indian motorcycle, and a couple of the first snowmobiles, plus a dozen planes. The focus is on “adventure aircraft,” gliders and float planes, including a 1910 Steco biplane. The museum is a dream of local businessman Buzz Kaplan, an aviator himself. Last fall he took a two-month “friendship flight” to Antarctica, stopping in Central and South American countries.

There is also a children’s museum at Heritage Halls, where kids can crawl into a plane, learn about air flow that keep planes aloft, and play virtual reality soccer. There’s a play area for preschoolers and many other hands-on activities to keep kids intrigued.

Heritage Halls is open daily; admission for adults is $6.50, $4 for children aged 2-12.

Adjacent to the museum is Cabela’s, the largest outdoor gear store in the Midwest, with a wide array of camping, hunting and fishing gear and apparel. Most remarkable about this store is its displays of mounted game. North American big game are displayed on a mini-mountain: musk oxen, polar bear, caribou, grizzly bears and more. There’s also an African display with an elephant, lion, rhino and zebra. Not your ordinary shopping experience!

Die-hard shoppers can enjoy a spree at Medford Outlet Center, just a bit north of Cabela’s along I-35. There are over 30 manufacturer’s outlets here, ranging from Adolfo II to Van Heusen. Owatonna also has an antique mall and several gift shops.

The museums and major shops are all relatively new draws to Owatonna, but for years architecture buffs have traveled here to see its Prairie School bank designed by Louis Sullivan. This beautiful building opened in 1908 and is still operating as a bank. Visitors can stop in during banking hours to take in the beautiful craftsmanship of the stained glass, murals, terra cotta ornamentation, and magnificent chandeliers. A stand next to the front door has flyers that describe the interior on a self-guided tour. The bank is downtown at the corner of Broadway and Cedar.

The Owatonna Convention and Visitors Bureau also has a pamphlet for a self-guided walking tour to other architectural highlights in town. The tour covers two miles and passes by over two dozen homes and other buildings.

This park-filled town has a swimming beach at Lake Kohlmier, walking and biking trails in Kaplan’s Woods Parkway, and four golf courses. Seven miles east of town is Rice Lake State Park, with hiking trails, a swimming beach and picnic area. Spring is an especially good time to visit the park to see wildflowers blooming and watch for the numerous waterfowl and songbirds that migrate through here.

There’s plenty to see and do to keep you busy for a few days in this bustling city of almost 20,000, and there are plenty of places to stay. There are several big-name motels, a bed and breakfast, and three campgrounds.

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