Stillwater’s Territorial Prison is strongly linked to the history of Stillwater and Washington County, Minnesota. In fact the newspapers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s often refer to Stillwater as “The Prison City.” As such, it is not surprising that the occupants of the house we now know as the Rivertown Inn also had strong connections to the prison. John O’Brien who ,with his wife Anna, built the house, had two brothers involved with the prison and a later occupant of the house worked for the prison after it was moved to Bayport.
John’s brother, James, was for many years the president of the Minnesota Board of Prison Managers and their brother, Edward, was the clerk at the prison. Both of these brothers were involved with the prison during the tenure of Warden Wolfer. During this period a twine factory was established at the prison. According to the St. Paul Daily Globe, James O’Brien went east with other committee members in 1890 to buy binding twine machinery for the prison. This was part of an effort to undermine the twine monopoly in Minnesota. Twine was a very important commodity as it was used by every farmer, logger and merchant. The prison could produce high-quality twine at a reasonable price which undercut the prices set by the monopoly.
Stillwater Prison Twine Shop (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
The Stillwater Daily Gazette of September 25th, 1896 stated about Edward O’Brien that, “For the past four years, he has been engaged as and acceptably filled the position of clerk at the prison.” Apparently, Edward had a flair for interior design, as the in 1896, while Warden Wolfer and President O’Brien were on a visit to prisons in the east, he was “having the private office repainted, repaired and rejuvenated,” according to the Stillwater Daily Gazette.
There are also many newspaper articles about John O’Brien arranging for tours of the prison for out-of-town guests as well as visiting dignitaries. On several occasions, he arranged visits for the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of Minnesota (of which he was the president) and once for the national convention of this abstinence society. The dignitaries which he brought to the prison included Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore (the most powerful American Catholic of his day) and Bishop Foley of Detroit.
The other occupant of the house with connections to the prison was Kitty Jo Hohlt. Her parents bought the house in the late 1930’s and in 1938 divided the house into 3 apartments. The Hohlts lived in one apartment and rented the other 2 units. According to the Stillwater Directories from 1962 to 1966 Kitty Jo worked at the new Stillwater Prison in Bayport first as a stenographer and then as a secretary. It is my understanding that Kitty still resides in the Stillwater area and I would enjoy interviewing her about the history of the house. If anyone can arrange for us to meet, please contact the Rivertown inn.
Stillwater Warden’s House Museum
On Sunday, April 27th, the Washington County Historical Society will host their annual open house at the Warden’s House Museum which is located in the only remaining original building at the site of Stillwater’s Territorial Prison. This free event will be held from Noon to 4pm and allows visitors to view the latest exhibits and chat with the knowledgeable volunteers. The staff members at the Rivertown Inn are available to assist you with directions to this open house or to any other local historic site.