Rice County history

The first time that the Minnesota territorial legislature assembled was in St. Paul during the winter of 1849. At the direction of Gov. Alexander Ramsey, the Minnesota territory was divided into districts. By this time, white settlers were in what is now known as Rice County. The trading post near the present site of Faribault was an active hub of trapping and trade.

A portion of what is now known as Rice County was created by the territorial legislature on March 5, 1853. Subsequent changes and modifications occurred to the boundaries of Rice County as other counties were created and modified (such as Steele County's creation at a later date on February 20, 1855.)

Source: "1910 History of Rice and Steele Counties, Volume 1," Pages 54, 57.

Settlement dates of Rice County's
cities and townships

1852 ­ Dundas
1853 ­ Bridgewater Township, Faribault & Webster
1854 ­ Cannon City, Northfield, Richland & Warsaw townships
1855 ­ Erin, Millersburg, Morristown, Shieldsville & Wheatland townships
1856 ­ Nerstrand & Walcott
1869 ­ Lonsdale
1880 ­ Veseli

First Courthouse Built in 1874

Black and white image of the two story courthouse around the year 1932
Black and white porttrait of Henry Rice

Henry M. Rice

Henry Mower Rice was born in Vermont in 1817. He first came to Minnesota in 1839 when he visited Fort Snelling. He worked as a fur trader in his early years, later contributing to his success in helping the government to work with the Native American Indians in treaty negotiations. Henry M. Rice first came to what is now Rice County in 1844 with General Sumner with a pack of mules that carried their provisions.

On this trip, Rice met Alexander Faribault who was acting as a guide at the confluence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers. A fur trader, Rice attained a position of prominence and influence. He was trusted by Minnesota's Indigenous people and was instrumental in negotiating a treaty with the Ojibwe in 1847 in which they a large amount of land to the United States.

Rice was an ardent supporter statehood for Minnesota, and in 1857 was named the state's first U.S. senator in 1857. 
He served one term and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1867. 

Sources: "1910 History of Rice and Steele counties, Volume 1," Pages 95, 124, 241-242. RCHS' Research Files, Rice, Henry, 29 Nov. 1817 ­ 15 Jan. 1894.

Courthouse in 1901

Black and white image of the Rice County Courthouse in 1901

Rice County Courthouse

The courthouses of Rice County have had a rich and varied history. The early courts in Faribault were held in a one-story brick building, located on the same block as the current courthouse.

In 1874 the first official courthouse was built, and contained all county offices and a large district court room. The site for the courthouse building was secured for $225. This was made possible by donation of three of the lots. The courthouse was widely considered to be one of the most magnificent buildings in southern Minnesota -- if not the entire northwest -- if a local paper from the time is to be believed. In 1924, two fireproof wings were added to the building in order to increase vault space.

On Feb. 25, 1931 a fire broke out on the west side of the attic in the building, and while firemen attempted to put out the fire, it fire spread to cupola and engulfed the ornate central tower. Virtually everything, other than the two fireproof wings added in 1924, was destroyed. There were no injuries to those in the building, and even the courthouse cat, Tommy, made it out alive thanks to a brave custodian. The cause of the fire was never determined.

The fireproof vaults preserved Faribault's most important records, but something needed to be done about the building. Almost immediately there was controversy over whether the old building should be rebuilt, or if another should be put in its current place. On Aug. 13, 1931 John E. Lister, a Northfield farmer, served an injunction on the Rice County Board of Commissioners to prevent it from moving and wrecking the old courthouse.

The board took its case to court, and the injunction was upheld. On Jan. 24, 1932, the Rice County Commissioners appealed the decision to the Minnesota State Supreme Court, which reversed the ruling and granted the Board of Commissioners permission to put its plan for a new building into action. The new courthouse was constructed of rubble stone, concrete, steel and Faribault marble in an Art Deco style. The structure covers a plot of ground 134 feet by 98 feet, approximately 5,300 square feet more than the old structure.

Source: Rice County Historical Society archive file, Rice County Courthouse; and Faribault Daily News dated Feb. 26, 1931.

James-Younger Gang's bank robbery of 1876

Northfield is famous for the Sept. 7, 1876 bank robbery, when the James-Younger Gang, including the notorious Jesse James and seven others tried to rob the First National Bank.

Northfield residents took matters into their own hands, ambushing the riders from a nearby hardware store as well as the second floor of the hotel, aborting the robbery.

It is generally accepted that Jesse James' brother, Frank James, was responsible for the death of Joseph L. Heywood, the bank cashier who refused to open the safe and is regarded as a hero. Other bank employees included cashier A.E. Bunker, who was shot in the shoulder and escaped out aback door, and assistant bookkeeper Frank J. Wilcox.

Nicholas Gustavson, a Swedish immigrant who couldn't understand English, when instructed to get out of the street, but was shot in the melee. Gang members Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell were also killed in a shoot out on Division Street.

The James brothers fled for Missouri while the Younger brothers -- Cole, Jim and Bob -- and robber Charley Pitts (aka Sam Wells) were discovered near Madelia. The Youngers were captured, Pitts was killed. The Youngers were tried in Rice County and sentenced to life in Minnesota's Stillwater prison. Bob Younger died in prison, Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901.

Jesse James

Sepia tone image of Jesse James

First National Bank

Balck and white image of the two story First National Bank

Agriculture & Industry

Rice County remains a blend of agriculture and industry. Faribault is known for its Faribault Woolen Mill, 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 20,000. Towns like Lonsdale are growing once again, this time as suburbs of Minneapolis.
Black and white image of the two story square Woolen Mill
Farmer Seed Nursery Postcard 1944