Minnesota: Houston County

Houston County (pop. 19,027) is in the far southeastern corner of Minnesota, bordered by Wisconsin (across the Mississippi River) on the east and Iowa on the south.

Houston County was named for Sam Houston (1793-1863), the first president of the Republic of Texas.

Also its third president

Much of the county is in the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest.

The county seat is Caledonia (pop. 2,868).

Houston County Courthouse (1883)

The city of La Crescent (pop. 4,830), along the Mississippi, calls itself the Apple Capital of Minnesota.

La Crescent apple orchard

The town of Houston (pop. 979) has an International Festival of Owls every year.

NEXT STATE: SOUTH CAROLINA (Coming soon)

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Minnesota: Fillmore County

Fillmore County (pop. 20,866) was named for Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States.

The only other Fillmore County is in Nebraska.

The county, along Minnesota’s southern border with Iowa, has only one stoplight – in the city of Chatfield (pop. 2,779), which is partly in Olmsted County.

The county seat of Fillmore County is Preston (pop. 1,325), which calls itself America’s Trout Capital.

Preston’s 20-foot trout

Preston’s former jail, sheriff’s residence, and courthouse (built in 1870) is now the Jailhouse Inn Bed and Breakfast.

The jail relocated in 1970.

Mystery Cave State Park is just west of Preston.

The longest cave in Minnesota that’s open to the public

The town of Harmony (pop. 1,020) and the surrounding area have the largest Amish population in Minnesota.

Many Amish moved from Ohio to Minnesota in the 1970s.

In Spring Valley (pop. 2,479), the former Methodist Episcopal Church is now a Spring Valley Community Historical Society museum.

Laura and Almanzo Wilder attended 1890-91.

The town of Fountain  (pop. 410) is the western terminus of the Root River segment of the 60-mile Blufflands State Trail.

Mostly on a Milwaukee Road railbed

NEXT: HOUSTON COUNTY

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Minnesota: Mower County

Mower County (pop. 39,163), the only Mower County in the U.S., was named for John Edward Mower, a member of the Minnesota Territorial Legislature.

Mower is one of only four Minnesota counties without a natural lake, but its Lake Louise State Park (1963) has a 25-acre man-made lake.

It’s less crowded than the Lake Louise in Canada.

The county seat of Mower County is Austin (pop. 24,718), home of Hormel Foods Corporation.

Spam Town USA in 1910

The SPAM Museum in Austin is a popular tourist attraction.

“The world’s most comprehensive collection of spiced pork artifacts”

Austin is on the 338-mile Cedar River, which flows south into Iowa and eventually joins the Iowa River.

Its waters reach the Mississippi in southeastern Iowa.

Downtown Austin’s Paramount Theatre (1929) has been restored and now hosts a variety of concerts, films, and special events.

The Lovin’ Spoonful (without John Sebastian) played on March 2.

In the town of Grand Meadow (pop. 1,139), the K-12 Grand Meadow Public School has its classrooms, offices, cafeteria, and gym in five domes.

Elementary grades in one dome, secondary in another

NEXT: FILLMORE COUNTY

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Minnesota: Freeborn County

Freeborn County (pop. 31,255) is east of Faribault County. It was named for William Freeborn, a member of the first Minnesota Territorial Legislature.

The county seat is Albert Lea (pop. 18,016), named for Albert Miller Lea, who surveyed southern Minnesota and northern Iowa in 1835.

Fountain Lake, one of six lakes in Albert Lea

The Marion Ross Performing Arts Center is named for actress Marion Ross, who lived in Albert Lea as a young girl.

Marion Cunningham on “Happy Days”

Early rock ‘n’ roller Eddie Cochran (1938-60) was born in Albert Lea.

He died in a traffic accident at age 21.

Myre-Big Island State Park is just east of Albert Lea.

A causeway attaches Big Island to the mainland.

The paved Blazing Star State Trail connects central Albert Lea with the state park.

Six miles long

The town of Hayward (pop. 250) claims the record for the longest game of horseshoes, set in 1930 between the postmaster and the train station agent.

It lasted five months and four days.

NEXT: MOWER COUNTY

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Minnesota: Faribault County

Faribault County (pop. 14,553) is just east of Martin County, on Minnesota’s southern border with Iowa. Faribault County’s population reached its peak of 23,941 in 1940.

The county seat of Faribault County is Blue Earth. The city of Faribault is the county seat of Rice County. The county seat of Blue Earth County is Mankato.

Blue Earth County is north, and Rice County is northeast.

The city of Blue Earth (pop. 3,353) is on the Blue Earth River.

Faribault County Courthouse (1892)

Blue Earth has a 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant, installed in 1979.

The reason is complicated.

Construction of I-90, the longest Interstate highway in the U.S. (from Seattle to Boston), was completed in 1978 near Blue Earth. A plaque and a “Golden Stripe” commemorate the event.

Similar to the “Golden Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah

The former First National Bank in the town of Winnebago (pop. 1,437) is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1917

The town of Frost (pop. 198) was not named for ice crystals; it was named for Charles S. Frost, a Chicago architect.

Census data for Frost

NEXT: FREEBORN COUNTY

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Minnesota: Martin County

Martin County (pop. 20,840) is just east of Jackson County. It’s one of six Martin counties in the U.S.

The county seat of Martin County is Fairmont (pop. 10,666). Fairmont has a string of five lakes on its west side.

Aerial view of Fairmont

The Martin County Courthouse was built in 1907.

The Fairmont Opera House was built in 1901.

It hosts a variety of concerts and other events.

According to legend, the naming of the town of Ceylon (pop. 369) was inspired by a box of tea from Ceylon.

Walter Mondale was born in Ceylon.

The town of Welcome was named for early homesteader Alfred M. Welcome.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Welcome

NEXT: FARIBAULT COUNTY

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Minnesota: Jackson County

Jackson County (pop. 10,266) is one of 24 Jackson counties in the U.S.

Named for Henry Jackson

Jackson County is east of Nobles County, on the border with Iowa.

The county seat is Jackson (pop. 3.299). At least 19 states have cities named Jackson.

Jackson County Courthouse (1908)

Jackson’s State Theatre, dating from the 1920s, shows first-run movies.

Art Deco style

The Okabena Bank in the town of Okabena (pop. now 188) was robbed by Bonnie and Clyde in 1933.

The real Bonnie and Clyde

Kilen Woods State Park is in the northeastern part of the county.

The park is along the Des Moines River.

Walter Mondale, U.S. vice president 1977-81, attended Heron Lake High School in Heron Lake (pop. now 698); his father was a minister in the town.

NEXT: MARTIN COUNTY

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Minnesota: Nobles County

Nobles County (pop. 21,378) is just east of Rock County. Named for William H. Nobles, a member of the Minnesota Territorial Legislature, it is the only Nobles County in the U.S.

The county is located along Buffalo Ridge, a 60-mile-long area of rolling hills in southwestern Minnesota. Buffalo Ridge has recently become an important center for the generation of wind power.

Ribbon-cutting for a wind turbine near Worthington

The county seat of Nobles County is Worthington (pop. 12,764).

Downtown Worthington

The Nobles County Historical Society has moved 49 historic buildings onto a site in Worthington, creating Nobles County Pioneer Village.

Established in 1968

Worthington has celebrated King Turkey Day annually since 1940.

The King Turkey Day parade

The St. Adrian Catholic Church in the town of Adrian (pop. 1,209) was built in 1900.

On the National Register of Historic Places

Kinbrae (pop. 12) is the third-smallest city in Minnesota.

NEXT: JACKSON COUNTY

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Minnesota: Rock County

Rock County (pop. 9,687) is in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, bordered by South Dakota on the west and Iowa on the south.

Nebraska and Wisconsin also have Rock counties.

Rock County is one of four Minnesota counties with no natural lakes, but Blue Mounds State Park has a small reservoir. The park has a herd of more than 100 bison.

The herd began in 1961 with three animals.

The county seat of Rock County is Luverne (pop. 4,745).

Rock County Courthouse (1890)

The Palace Theatre in Luverne (1915) hosts a variety of events, including live theater, concerts, and movies.

Owned by the city

Luverne was one of the cities featured in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS series about World War II, “The War.”  The film had its world premiere at the Palace Theatre.

The six-mile Blue Mounds Hiking and Biking Trial connects Luverne with Blue Mounds State Park.

It opened in 2003.

The Verne Drive-In Theater in Luverne is one of the few remaining drive-ins in Minnesota.

Summer only

NEXT: NOBLES COUNTY

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Minnesota: Pipestone County

Pipestone County (pop. 9,596) is west of Murray County, on the border with South Dakota.

The county was named for the brownish-red rock that has been quarried in the area by Native Americans for centuries – for use in making sacred pipes.

Pipestone is an extremely soft rock.

Pipestone National Monument, created in 1933, preserves the quarries for exclusive use of Native Americans.

The quarries are in a tallgrass prairie.

The monument has a short trail to Winnewissa Falls.

On Pipestone Creek

The county seat of Pipestone County is the town of Pipestone (pop. 4,317).

Pipestone County Courthouse (1901)

The four-story Calumet Hotel, now known as the Calumet Inn, opened in downtown Pipestone in 1888.

Still open as a hotel

Pipestone has a 132-foot, concrete water tower, built in 1921. It was replaced by a newer tower in 1976.

There’s a Water Tower Festival every June.

A famous photograph was taken on July 8, 1927, of a tornado near the town of Jasper (pop. now 633).

It’s featured on the cover of Deep Purple’s 1974 album “Stormbringer.”

Pipestone County has no natural lakes, but Split Rock Lake was created when the Works Project Administration built a dam in 1938.

It’s in Split Rock Creek State Park.

The Woodstock Music Festival (1969) was not held in Woodstock, Minnesota (pop. 124).

Three days of peace, love, and understanding

NEXT: ROCK COUNTY

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Minnesota: Murray County

Murray County (pop. 8,725) is just west of Cottonwood County. It has more than 70 lakes.

The state of Minnesota has had two F5 tornadoes since 1950, and both of them have been in Murray County: the Tracy Tornado on June 13, 1968, and the Chandler-Lake Wilson Tornado on June 16, 1992.

The Tracy Tornado killed nine people.

The county seat of Murray County is Slayton (pop. 2,157).

Slayton in 1907

The town of Fulda (pop. 1,318) has a two-story Milwaukee Road depot that dates from 1880.

On the National Register of Historic Places

Lake Shetek is the largest lake in southwestern Minnesota. Lake Shetek State Park was developed from 1934 to 1941.

The source of the Des Moines River

The town of Currie (pop. 233), “The Gateway to Lake Shetek,” is the home of the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum.

An old depot was moved to the site.

NEXT: PIPESTONE COUNTY

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Minnesota: Cottonwood County

Cottonwood County (pop. 11,687), west of Watonwan County, was named for the Cottonwood River, which was named for the trees along its banks.

The northeastern part of the county is drained by the Cottonwood River, which flows into the Minnesota River and then the Mississippi; the southwestern part of the county is drained by the Des Moines River, which joins the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa.

Des Moines River watershed

The county seat is Windom (pop. 4,646).

Cottonwood County Courthouse (1904)

The Des Moines River runs through Windom; the river is popular for canoeing and kayaking.

In winter there’s a Darn Cold Croquet Contest.

Near the town of Jeffers (pop. 369) is the Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, with more than 2,000 images made by Native Americans over thousands of years on a large rock outcrop.

NEXT: MURRAY COUNTY

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Minnesota: Watonwan County

Watonwan County (pop. 11,211) is west of Blue Earth County. It’s the only Watonwan County in the U.S.

The county seat is St. James (pop. 4,605).

Watonwan County Courthouse (1896)

The Grand Opera House in St. James was built in 1892.

On the National Register of Historic Places

In the town of Madelia (pop. 2,308), the Madelia Theater (1934) still shows first-run movies.

Tickets are $5.

The Younger Gang (Bob, Cole, and Jim) were captured near Madelia in 1876 after their famous  attempt, with the James Gang, to rob the First National Bank of Northfield.

Cole’s gun

The town of Butterfield (pop. 586) hosts the Butterfield Threshing Bee every August.

Since 1967

There is some disagreement about how the town of Darfur (pop. 108) got its name; it may have had to do with the “dark fur” on local otters, or it may have come from a conversation in which one Scandinavian railroad worker said to another, “Why you stop dar fur?”

Probably not from the war-torn region of Sudan

NEXT: COTTONWOOD COUNTY

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Minnesota: Blue Earth County

Blue Earth County (pop. 64,013), west of Waseca County, was named for the 108-mile-long Blue Earth River; the river was named for the blue-green clay that was once found on its banks.

The county seat is Mankato (pop. 39,309), located where the Blue Earth River joins the Minnesota River.

Sibley Park, Mankato

Minnesota State University, Mankato, has about 15,000 students. It was founded in 1868 as the Minnesota Normal School.

Also formerly known as Mankato State Teachers College

The Blue Earth County Courthouse was built in 1889.

In the French and Italian Renaissance style

The First National Bank of Mankato was built in 1913 in the Prairie School style.

The Happy Chef chain of restaurants is headquartered in Mankato; the first Happy Chef opened in 1963 in Mankato.

Breakfast served all day

Minneopa State Park is just west of Mankato.

Minneopa Falls

The park contains the Seppman Mill, a stone windmill that was built in 1864.

The stone walls are 32 feet tall.

The town of Lake Crystal (pop. 2,549) is on the shores of Lake Crystal.

NEXT: WATONWAN COUNTY

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Minnesota: Waseca County

Waseca County (pop. 19,136) is just west of Steele County. The county seat is Waseca (pop. 9,410).

Waseca is a Dakota word meaning “rich” or “fertile.”


The Waseca County Courthouse was built in 1897.

In the Richardsonian Romanesque style

Waseca had a branch of the University of Minnesota from 1971 to 1992; it was closed for budgetary reasons, and the campus was turned into a low-security Federal Correctional Institution for Women.

The university focused on agricultural education.

Waseca has a 4.6-mile bike path around Clear Lake.

The town of Janesville (pop. 2,256) still uses its 1912 Carnegie library.

Janesville Free Public Library

NEXT: BLUE EARTH COUNTY

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Minnesota: Steele County

Steele County (pop. 36,576), just west of Dodge County, was named for Franklin Steele (1813-1880). America’s only other Steele County, in North Dakota, was named for Edward Steele (1846-1899).

The Steele County Courthouse (1891) in Owatonna

Interstate 35 – which goes 1,568 miles from Duluth to Laredo, Texas – runs north-south through the middle of Steele County.

It also goes through Ames, Iowa.

The 56-mile Straight River runs through the county seat of Owatonna (pop. 25,599).

It’s actually somewhat windy.

Louis Sullivan’s National Farmers’ Bank (1908) in Owatonna is an outstanding example of Prairie School architecture.

Now a Wells Fargo bank

The Steele County Free Fair, held every August in Owatonna, bills itself as the largest county fair and the largest free fair in Minnesota.

More than 300,000 people attended in 2012.

Federal Mutual Insurance Company, founded in Owatonna in 1900, is still headquartered there.

It has about 1,500 employees.

Actor E.G. Marshall (1914-1998) was born in Owatonna and attended Carleton College and the University of Minnesota.

With Robert Reed in “The Defenders” (1961-65)

Medford (pop. 1,239), on I-35, claims to be the second-smallest city in the U.S. with a McDonald’s restaurant.

Medford Outlet Center

NEXT: WASECA COUNTY

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Minnesota: Dodge County

Dodge County (pop. 20,087) is just west of Olmsted County.

The county seat is Mantorville (pop. 1,197). The Dodge County Courthouse is the oldest working courthouse in Minnesota.

Built in 1865

The Mantorville area has been known since the 19th century for its quarries of “Mantorville limestone.” The courthouse and the Mantorville Opera House (1918) were built from the limestone.

Now home of the Mantorville Theatre Company

Kasson, the largest city in Dodge County (pop. 5,931), has an historic water tower (no longer used for water supply) built of limestone.

Built in 1895

The Kasson Municipal Building (Old City Hall) was built in the Prairie School style in 1917.

Most recently, it housed a printing business.

The Kasson State Theatre (1937) still shows first-run movies.

220 seats

Wasioja Township (pop. 963) has Civil War Days every summer.

Battle of Bull Run (2011)

NEXT: STEELE COUNTY

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Minnesota: Olmsted County

Just west of Winona County is Olmsted County (pop. 144,248).  Its county seat is Rochester, the third-largest city in Minnesota.

Rochester was named for Rochester, New York; its population has grown from 40,663 in 1960 to 106,769 in 2010.

Most of downtown’s tall buildings are part of the Mayo Clinic.

Rochester is famous for its Mayo Clinic; Dr. William Worrall Mayo (1819-1911) started the medical practice that eventually became the Mayo Clinic.

Statue of William W. Mayo

More than 30,000 people work at the Mayo Clinic, and the clinic has more than a million patient visits each year.

IBM is another large employer in Rochester, with more than 4,000 workers at its Rochester facility.

IBM Rochester (1958), designed by Eero Saarinen

Downtown Rochester’s Chateau Theatre (1927) was converted into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in 1994.

Minnesota’s finest “atmospheric” theater

The University of Minnesota Rochester opened in downtown Rochester in 2006.

This building combines classrooms and student residences.

The 38-room Mayowood Mansion, home of three generations of the Mayo family, is open for tours.

Stewartville (pop. 5,916) was the birthplace of Richard Warren Sears (1863-1914), cofounder of Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

NEXT: DODGE COUNTY

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Minnesota: Winona County

Winona County (pop. 51,461) is southeast of Wabasha County, along the Mississippi River.

The county seat is Winona (pop. 27,592), for which the actress Winona Ryder was named – although she was born in nearby Olmsted County.

In “Little Women”

Winona, which was a major wheat-shipping port in the late 1800s, celebrates Steamboat Days every summer.

A rocky pinnacle called Sugar Loaf is a landmark in the Winona area.

Its shape resulted from limestone quarrying in the 1880s.

The Winona County Courthouse was built in 1889.

In the Richardsonian Romanesque style

The Church of Saint Stanislaus was built in 1895.

Founded by Polish Catholics

Watkins Incorporated has been based in Winona since 1885; Watkins sells a variety of health-related and household products, mainly through direct sales.


Watkins invented the “money-back guarantee” in 1868.

The town of Rollingstone (pop. 664) got its name from the Rollingstone River, which was called “the stream where the stone rolls” by the Dakota Indians.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Rollingstone, founded by Luxembourgers

NEXT: OLMSTED COUNTY

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Minnesota: Wabasha County

Wabasha County (pop. 21,676) is east of Goodhue County and across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin.

Much of the county is adjacent to Lake Pepin, the largest natural lake along the Mississippi.

It’s about 20 miles long and two miles wide.

According to legend, Lake Pepin is the home of a lake monster that bears a resemblance to the Loch Ness Monster.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born just a few miles from Lake Pepin – in the “big woods” on the Wisconsin side.

The county seat of Wabasha County is the town of Wabasha (pop. 2,521), located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Chippewa rivers.

Downtown Wabasha

Wabasha was the setting for the movies “Grumpy Old Men” and “Grumpier Old Men.”

Although not actually filmed there

Wabasha now hosts a Grumpy Old Men Festival every February.

Events include Frostbite Frisbee.

The Anderson House Hotel (1856) in Wabasha was the oldest continuously operating inn in Minnesota until it closed in 2009.

The Anderson House Hotel

The National Eagle Center is in Wabasha.

The interpretive center overlooks the Mississippi.

Lake City (pop. 5,067) is the largest city in Wabasha County. In 1890 a Mississippi excursion boat, the Sea Wing, overturned on Lake Pepin near Lake City in a storm, resulting in the drowning deaths of 98 persons.

Lake City City Hall (1899)

Ralph Samuelson (1904-77) of Lake City invented the sport of water skiing on Lake Pepin in 1922.

NEXT: WINONA COUNTY

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