5 Things you can only do in Owatonna
5 Things you can only do in Owatonna
Located one hour south of Minneapolis, Owatonna is a hidden gem with its own one-of-a-kind perks. The unique attractions found throughout the city include architectural landmarks, a legend of healing waters and a rare state orphanage that’s been turned into a museum. Here are five things you can only do in Owatonna, Minnesota.
1. See the first “jewel box” designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan
The National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna was designed by Louis Sullivan, called the “father of skyscrapers,” who, in addition to other things, mentored Frank Lloyd Wright. The building, completed in 1908, is a stunning architectural monument and a delicately preserved example of what would come to be known as Prairie School Architecture. The bank, with its stained glass windows and 2-ton chandeliers, was named one of the 11 can’t-miss stops on a tour of America’s hidden architectural gems by Mental Floss magazine.
How did one of the architectural highlights of the Midwest end up in Owatonna? At the turn of the 20th century, the bank’s president Carl Bennett, who was highly interested in the arts and architecture, commissioned Sullivan for the bank, and the two became great friends. Sullivan’s trademark style, using terra cotta material and lots of ornamentation, is very prominent on both the interior and exterior of the bank.
The building operates as a Wells Fargo today, and local volunteers lead tours of the bank year-round which can be booked through the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism. Steve Jessop is one of those guides, and he still gets excited about the sheer beauty of the bank. “You can’t anticipate the sensation of walking into this room. The big stained-glass windows are the main source of light in there, and the stenciling and details combine so that there’s a greenish cast to the light. It’s ever so slight and ever so subtle, and it has a psychological effect. It’s calming,” he says.
2. Visit one of the nation’s only orphanage museums
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, more than 10,000 orphaned children lived on the campus of what is now the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum. Created in 1885 by Minnesota state legislature, the facility was created to take in orphaned, dependent, abused and neglected children.
The museum campus is quite large, and the city of Owatonna purchased it in 1974 to use for municipal buildings and office space for the mayor, the city council, parks district and more. Close to 20 years later, a former state schooler named Harvey Ronglien went to the city council and said he wanted to see the school recognize its past and memorialize the children who spent so much of their early lives there. He succeeded, and today a few of the buildings on campus tell the fascinating history of the school and shows what life was like for the children who lived there at the time.
“The main museum is one component, and walking the grounds on a tour visiting audio stations is another,” says Museum Director Anne Peterson. The main museum includes a big U-shaped hallway that contains a number of photographs and other items donated by former state schoolers. There’s a restored cottage where boys ages 5 to 13 slept, giving visitors an idea of the living arrangements for children at the time. Overall, the campus was 300 acres, 200 of which were used for farming. “This was a self-sustaining institution on the west side of Owatonna,” Peterson adds. “This is a must-do for someone who has never been here.”
3. Meet reptiles and amphibians at the only zoo of its kind in the region
“You would have to drive to Rapid City, S.D., or Wisconsin Dells to see something of a similar nature,” says Jamie Pastika, executive director at the Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo in Owatonna. “We display more of these kind of animals than almost any other zoo in the world.” Here you can meet “Big Al,” a 12-foot alligator, “Bella” a 14 foot-long python, and an albino boa constrictor that once belonged to Justin Bieber. The RAD Zoo is know for having one of the best serpentariums in the country (snake exhibit), and the zoo features a wide range of wildlife from Florida like alligators, snakes, turtles, chameleons, iguanas and frogs.
“We were looking for a location within an hour’s drive of the metro area and stumbled across Owatonna, and it’s turned into a great home for us,” says Jamie, who runs the zoo along with his wife Melissa and two daughters. “We have shows every day where our guests can pet one of our large boas or pythons, a tortoise, and an alligator, which is usually the favorite time at the zoo,” he adds. “We also have feedings on the weekends so the guests can watch a lot of animals eat and possibly even help us feed the turtles.” Plus, the zoo is always changing and upgrading. “In our efforts to become the largest reptile zoo in the world, we are constantly adding new exhibits,” he says.
4. Drink legendary healing water at Mineral Springs Park
The legend goes Owatonna got its name from a Native American princess who fell into poor health. Her father, Chief Wabena, heard of nearby healing water from Maple Creek and moved his tribe to camp there. Princess Owatonna drank from the water daily and was “cured” over time. Since then, the riverbank has remained a historic wonder for wandering travelers who will stop to rest and drink the water, which today is conveniently accessible from a water fountain. A statue of Princess Owatonna watches over the riverbank while visitors admire her stature of newfound health. The true reason behind the name “Owatonna” stems from the local Native American name for the Straight River.
5. Step back in time at the village of yesteryear
Experience what life was like in Owatonna at the turn of the 20th Century at the Village of Yesteryear. Part of the Steele County Historical Society, the 19 structure site has become a landmark in the county and a historic treasure. Among many other historic buildings, you will visit two log cabins. One is a two-story cabin built in 1859 which was home to a family of six from Bohemia. The second is a “bachelor cabin” built in the late 1800s which was home to a rural mail carrier and features a rope bed with straw mattress, winter coats of bear and buffalo hides, and a food safe.
Another highlight is the Saco Church, a beautiful tiny white church built in 1891. The church contains an 1875 painting of St. Wencelaus, a 1910 altar, and the original pump organ.
You will also visit a railroad station and a caboose, a general store and post office, a fire station, a farm machinery building, a blacksmith shop, a country school, and the popular Dunnell mansion. The buildings are furnished according to the time they were built, and are connected by a boardwalk.
For more information about unique things to do in Owatonna, request our free visitor guide here.