Legend has it that Chief Wadena once relocated his entire village south to this spot so that his daughter Owatonna, deathly ill following the famine of the harshest winter they had ever seen, could drink the healing waters of the area’s mineral springs.
Though there is likely no truth to the tale, generations of Native Americans did travel here to quaff the curing waters of the springs feeding the “Ouitunya” River. Mapmakers ironically translated this crooked river’s name to Straight, though a better translation would be “morally strong” or “honest.”
The city’s founding fathers, the earliest of whom built their cabins here in 1854, kept the original name for the town. Like most cities around here it prospered early, first with milling and soon after with the railroad.
Though the claim seems dubious, according to Explore Minnesota Tourism, hunting and fishing superstore Cabela’s (3900 Cabela Dr., 507/451-4545, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.) is the second most-visited tourist attraction in the state.
Regardless of where it ranks, this 150,000-square-foot center is a big deal. Literally hundreds of animal mounts—at least 100 white-tailed deer alone—are on display throughout the store. A 35-foot-tall mountain features North American species such as polar bear and elk, while creatures from the African plains such as elephant, rhino, hartebeest, and baboon are spread out along the north wall and Minnesota fish swim in the 60,000-gallon aquarium.
It’s not exactly the American Museum of Natural History, but it’s an impressive collection. It is located just off of I-35 approximately 60 miles south of Minneapolis, just off the Clinton Falls exit.
Even if you are in a hurry to get elsewhere, exit the freeway and take a moment to admire the Louis Sullivan–designed National Farmer’s Bank (101 Cedar Ave. N., 507/451-5670, 8:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), a Prairie School masterpiece inside and out. Now Wells Fargo, the world-renowned 1908 building is a National Historic Landmark and was even featured on a postage stamp. Inside you can admire the stained-glass arches (even beautiful from the outside), murals, and 2.25-ton chandeliers. It sits across from Central Park, one of the few town squares in the state.
The Steele County Historical Society’s Village of Yesteryear (1448 Austin Rd., 507/451-1420, guided tours 1:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun. May–Sept., $5 adults), on the south side of town at the fairgrounds, has 15 19th-century structures such as log cabins, a blacksmith shop, general store, one-room schoolhouse, and print shop. Each is appropriately equipped, and the furnishings of the 1876 St. Wenceslaus of Moravia Church are largely original. The Please Touch stickers on many items are a nice feature.
The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children opened in 1886 and served nearly 13,000 children during its 60 years of operation. At its peak in the 1920s it housed 500 children, making it the largest in the nation. Owatonna was chosen, in part, because it was believed that area farmers in need of workers would adopt kids.
The State School Orphanage Museum (540 West Hills Cir., www.orphanagemuseum.com, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 1–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun., free admission) is really just a small collection of photos, plus a few artifacts in a City Hall hallway, but the accompanying stories are both frightening and heartwarming. It’s hard to believe that in its day this was a very progressive institution.
The Owatonna Arts Center (507/451-0533, 1–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free admission) in the same building has monthly exhibits by area artists and a tiny sculpture garden.
About 15 miles west of Owatonna, just outside Waseca, is a site nearly everyone who went to school in Minnesota will recognize. FarmAmerica (7367 360th Ave., Waseca, 507/835-2052, www.farmamerica.org, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Tues.–Fri. June–Aug., $5 adults), also known as the Minnesota Agricultural Interpretive Center, welcomes school groups in May and the general public throughout the summer to experience life on the farm in the 1850s and the 1930s. There are plenty of ways to get your hands dirty—even milking a (pretend) cow.
Hotels and Restaurants
The Holiday Inn (2365 43rd St. NW, 507/ 446-8900 or 800/920-4402, www.greatserengeti.com, $125) next to Cabela’s features an indoor water park with waterslides, lazy river, waterfall whirlpool, and more. There is also a game room and fitness center.
Ideally situated in the heart of town, the Northrop-Oftedahl House B&B (358 Main St. E., 507/451-4040, www.northrophouse.com, $80–90) has seven guest rooms filled with family heirlooms.
The most unusual menu in the region is at the Northwoods Restaurant (3900 Cabela Dr., 507/451-4545, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun., $5–7) at Cabela’s. Wild-game ingredients include ostrich and elk sandwiches and bison and venison bratwurst.
Costas’ (112 Cedar Ave. N., 507/451-9050, 8 a.m.–3 p.m. daily, open until 6 p.m. for candy sales, $5–8) has Greek and American favorites on the menu, and the homemade sweets in the candy counter are awfully tough to resist.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition