Some Things You May Not Know About Steele County
This is sort of a potpourri of things that may be common knowledge to Steele County history buffs like John Gross or Jerry Ganfield and others, but it might be new to you.
Here's a few items about Franklin Steele, who was the brother-in-law of Henry Sibley. You've heard of Henry Sibley High School, I bet. Franklin got around, as he organized the first settlement in Polk County, Wisconsin, which is the county I was born in. The town he helped start was St. Croix Falls. He knew how to work a deal.
In 1851, the Territorial Legislature granted Franklin and his heirs exclusive rights to running a ferry across the Mississippi. They also ruled that no other person or persons could operate a ferry a half-mile from and above the head of the upper rapids of the falls of St. Anthony. It also gave him the right to charge double if someone needed transportation across the river at night. Part of the deal also included that he build a bridge across the Mississippi that would be free to people to travel across. So he had the revenue source of the ferry, which he could use in building his wire suspension bridge. Steele is also credited with constructing the first building used as a store in St. Anthony Falls.
Let's take a look at some of the names of places in Steele County.
The History of Steele and Waseca County book tells us that Merton Township got its start as Union Prairie in 1855. The name changed to Orion in 1857 and then to Merton in 1862. In 1867, Oak Glen township got its start. The name changed to Blooming Prairie township in 1873. Havana township got its start in 1857. Its name was LaFayette, and then in 1858 it became Freeman, and one month later the name changed again, this time to Dover. Finally in 1869 the name Havana was decided on. It got its name from Havana, Illinois.
Did you know a former Minnesota lieutenant governor died in Owatonna? John L. Gibbs, who also served as speaker of the House died in Owatonna in 1908. I have a special interest in him as we live in his old farmhouse just across the line in Freeborn County. Before buying the property there was an auction; one of the items that didn't go on the block was a large portrait of Gibbs and many of the lawmakers who served while he was speaker.
Steele County residents filed quite a few interesting patents. Many were for butter and agriculture-related items, but there are a few unique ones. In 1918, a John Campbell of Owatonna filed a patent for a better type of gum wrapper. Ernest Ogrosky in 1890 filed a patent for a better way of disintegrating pine needles. What? His idea involved putting the needles in a barrel and supplying steam, then extracting the fluid and then pulverizing the needles so they could easily fill a pillow or mattress.
One that caught my attention was the patent filed by Nels Corby of Cooleyville in 1899. It was for a type of vacuum milking machine. I did a little checking around and learned there were actually rudimentary types of milking machines as early as 1878. I never would have guessed that.
Here's a puzzling one, a D.J. Ames of Owatonna in the 1880s filed a couple of patents that he claimed would make it easier to separate cotton from its seeds. Cotton in Owatonna? Can anyone offer me more insight on this?
Here's maybe the strangest patent filed by a Steele County resident. An Otto Kubat in 1916, and again in 1920, claimed to have come up with a headlight dimmer for drivers. Wait, it's not what you think. It was a device you held in your hand and then moved it over your eyes when approaching a car at night. He claimed it also worked when battling the glare of the sun. Thank goodness for sunglasses and car dimmer switches. How in the world would you be able to talk on your cell phone, hold your headlight dimmer pole and drive? Just kidding.
As a footnote, one of Steele County's most prolific patent filers was an Alexander Gault of Medford. In the 1880s and '90s he filed at least four patents related to artificial legs. The crux of one of his limbs was that the foot was attached to the wooden leg with a special hinge. He also designed an artificial limb on which you could lock the knee in place and walk stiff-legged should you choose. I'm not sure I get that part.