Rice County history


Black and white image of the two story courthouse around the year 1932The 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 Feb. 20, 1855.)

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

Then & Now: A History of Rice County, Faribault and Communities, Edited by L.E. Swanberg, copyright 1976 by the Rice County Bi-Centennial Commission


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

Henry M. Rice

Black and white porttrait of Henry 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 ceded 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. 


Rice County Courthouse

Black and white picture of the Rice County courthouse debris following the fire

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 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 spread to the 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.

Black and white image of the construction of the courthouse, with two and a half stories of the buil

Black and white image of the construction of the foundation of the courthouse

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.

Courthouse south spring 2

Rice County Board of Commissioners

Jan. 10. 1873 – The Rice County Board of Commissioners requests that the state Legislature allow it to place a referendum on the ballot allowing the sale of $50,000 in bonds for the construction of a courthouse and jail. Interest rate not to exceed 10%. Payback: One 10th in 10 years and one 10th each ensuing year until paid off.

Feb. 7, 1873 – Legislature authorizes Board of Commissioners to issue bonds.

July 1, 1873 – Ten $1,000 bonds were sold to H. Wilson at 9% interest rate.

July 30, 1873 – Board unable to secure construction bonds at 8% interest rate as required, declares that resolution “no longer in force.”
Board awards contract for construction of basement story of courthouse and jail and to Griffen and Beechman. Pfieffer & Co. were contracted to complete all stone work for basement and to furnish all cut stone for the whole building. Cost: $9,615.
Babcock & Woodruff contracted for carpentry work in the basement and “furnish everything and complete the building from the water table up according to contract plans and specifications for the sum of $26,515.”

April 2, 1875 – “On motion, Mr. Scott and Mr. Clement were made a committee to arrange for another coat of oil and varnishing inside blinds in courthouse and also make necessary arrangements for altering dials and other things necessary for putting the clock into the tower and Mr. Clement and Mr. Frink to dispose of old county building.
“Adjourned to 7 o’clock p.m.”Rice County Board of Commissioners 1976

March 25, 1876 – “On motion it was resolved that the sum of $75 be appropriated for the ornamentation of the court house grounds whenever a like sum shall be appropriated by the authorities of the city of Faribault for the same purposed to be expended under the direction of Mr. Scott and Mr. Denison as a committee of the board to act with them. Carried. Ayes. Messrs. Denison, Adams and White. Nays Messrs Scott and Hanley.
“On motion it was voted to place the clock in the court house tower under the care and control of the city of Faribault and for access to the building shall be granted to any person or person the said council may employ to take care of the same – carried without dissent.”


James-Younger Gang's 1876 bank robbery

Joseph Lee Heywood

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

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 a back 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.


Balck and white image of the two story First National Bank

Jan. 2, 1877 – The Rice County Board of Commissioners agrees it would not be “proper” for it to pay bills from Drs. C.O. Corley and H. Overholz for medical attendance of the Younger brothers who were part of the gang that robbed the First National Bank of Northfield Sept. 7, 1876.

Jan. 6, 1877 – Board authorizes Sheriff Ara Barton to represent it before the Minnesota Legislature and request an “appropriation to defray expenses incurred in capture and safekeeping of the Northfield robbers.

Farmer Seed Nursery Postcard 1944

Agriculture and 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, including its peony farms, which spawned the city's Peony Days.

Brands Peonies adBlack and white image of the two story square Woolen Mill


Northfield's mainBlack and white image of the two story square Woolen Mill business is education, with a typical population of over 5,000 college students in a city of slightly more than 20,000. Towns like Lonsdale are growing once again, this time as suburbs of Minneapolis.