Stillwater Prison

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.


Stillwater Prison


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.

Rivertown Inn History, Cuisine and the Arts

On today’s date in 1842, John O’Brien’s parents, Michael and Mary (Casey) O’Brien, were married in Miramachi,  New Brunswick.  Although, I’m sure their wedding could in no way be compared to today’s often elaborate celebrations, it was a very important event for them, their friends and family (possibly of most importance was that their first child, Edward Augustus O’Brien, was born just 2 months after their marriage).  Over the course of their marriage, they had a total of 9 children.  Mary (Casey) O’Brien died in Stillwater, Minnesota, on December 4, 1882.  Michael O’Brien died in Stillwater on December 5, 1907.  He was almost 100 years of age at the time of his death (there are several different records concerning the date of his birth, so he was somewhere between 94 and 100 years old).  His obituary in the Stillwater Gazette stated that, ‘Mr. O’Brien was held in high esteem and was noted for a strong personality and for a vigor of manhood that astonished his many acquaintances.”

This week there are three events in Stillwater you should consider attending which are either at or within a short walk of the Rivertown Inn.  On Friday, April 11,  from 5-9 pm , Art On Main will be hosting artist receptions at several of Stillwater’s Main street art galleries.  The participating art galleries this week include the Tamarack Gallery at 112 S. Main St., Gallery 310 at 310 S. Main and the Stillwater Art Guild Gallery at 402 N. Main.  More information can be obtained by calling 651-439-9393


Chef Ray Remler

At the Rivertown Inn on Saturday, April 12, from 1-4 pm Chef Ray will be teaching one of his very popular Cooking Classes.  The theme this month is “Sweet and Savory Crepes – France’s Comfort Food.”  Skills covered in this class include making whole wheat and bran crepes, preparing 3 distinctive fillings and creating a mixed berry compote crepe with a Greek yogurt vanilla mousseline.   As of the posting of this blog, there are only 3 seats available for this class.  Please call (651) 430-2955 to place your reservation.  Culinary students who take Chef Ray’s Cooking class, receive $50. off their nights stay for either the night before or the evening of the class.


Roosevelt Credit

On Saturday April 12th, the Valley Chamber Chorale will perform a concert in Stillwater titled “Words to Live By” with special guest Roosevelt Credit.  Mr. Credit is a bass/baritone and has performed in many Broadway and off Broadway productions.  He is currently touring the U.S. with the production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”  The concert will be performed at 7:30pm at Trinity Lutheran Church.  You can purchase tickets at or by calling 651-430-0124.  Tickets are $27. each, but guests at the Rivertown Inn may receive tickets at a discounted rate of just $15. per ticket.  Please let us know in advance if you would like to purchase tickets through the Inn by calling us at (651) 430-2955

Come to Stillwater for a stay at the Rivertown Inn, enjoy great art, create incredible cuisine and experience world-class music – it really doesn’t get any better than this!




Local and Civil War History Events

Located just 3 blocks from the Rivertown Inn, Stillwater’s Historic Courthouse  is the site of many exhibits, concerts, events and weddings.  This coming weekend they will be hosting the annual History In Your Backyard.  This free event features the rich history of Washington County through old-fashioned games, historic artifacts and photos, refreshments, and activities. Children of all ages may participate in an architectural scavenger hunt and play with old-fashioned toys.  The event is designed to bring together, in one location, the purveyors of local history so people can learn about the many historic opportunities there are in Washington County and the surrounding area.


Stillwater’s Historic Courthouse


In addition to learning about local history, guests can tour the old county jail, and view an exhibit on the history of Marine on St. Croix, one of Minnesota’s oldest towns.  Presented by a committee from the Stone House Museum in Marine on St. Croix, the installation tells the story of the community on the river from the time the first lumber mill was built, until the community celebrated its centennial in 1938.  At 2 p.m., Mary Smith of the Stone House Museum will give a short presentation on the history of Marine on St. Croix.


Civil War Memorial


In front of the Historic Courthouse is the local Civil War Monument .  This monument was recently restored and rededicated to the memory of the men from Washington County who served during the war.  Among the many names on the monument, you will find Edward O’Brien.

Edward O’Brien was the older brother of John O’Brien (the original owner of the house we now call the Rivertown Inn).  He enlisted in the 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company I, as an Orderly Sergeant on October 4, 1862.  The regiment was first sent to guard the frontier from Native Americans who had been forced to leave Minnesota at the end of the US-Dakota War in September of 1862.  After pursuing the Native Americans as they fled west of the Missouri River and north into Canada, the regiment returned  to Fort Snelling where they were placed on garrison duty.  Subsequently the Regiment Captain resigned and as a result of this, on February 10, 1863, Edward was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

On June 14, 1864, the 6th Minnesota left Fort Snelling and were stationed in Helena, Arkansas, where many men died from disease (the final death tally for the regiment was 12 men who died in battle and 165 men who died from disease for a total of 177 loses).  After a few months in Helena, they were sent north to St. Louis, back south to New Orleans and then returned to Arkansas where they stormed Fort Blakely in January of 1865 – one of the last battles of the war.

Helena Arkansas

On March 9, 1865, Edward O’Brien was appointed Captain of the 24th United States Infantry, Colored Troops.  He never assumed this post as the war ended a few months later and he was at home on a furlough during this period.  The United States Colored Troops were disbanded in the fall of 1865.

If you are interested in local Civil War history, we would recommend “In Their Own Words, The Civil War as Seen by Washington County Soldiers,” by Robert Goodman and Peter DeCarlo.  This book was published by the Washington County Historical Society and is available for purchase at the Wardens House Museum, the Historic Courthouse and the Valley Bookseller.  Also, on Monday, April 7th, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm, the Stillwater Public Library will be hosting “Bring Home the Civil War” a presentation by Chuck Logan the author of “South of Shiloh.”  The cost for this event is $30. and you can register on line at, by calling (651) 275-4338 or emailing to





Spike Carlsen Book Launch

On today’s date (March 24th) in 1857, John O’Brien’s sister, Rose, was born.  She had an interesting life which I will blog about at some point in the future as a current event is more timely:

Stillwater is home to many writers and one of our neighbors here at the Rivertown Inn is author Spike Carlsen.   Spike is an editor, author, carpenter and woodworker, who has been immersed in the world of wood and woodworking for over 30 years. He is the author of the award-winning A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers and Baseball Bats as well as Woodworking FAQ and Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects. He has made appearances on the CBS Early Show, HGTV and Modern Marvels, and currently writes “The Great American Woodworker” for American Woodworker Magazine.

Spike Carlsen

He has also written for Old House Journal, Fine Homebuilding, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and many other publications. He is the former Executive Editor of Family Handyman magazine where he wrote hundreds of articles on home improvement and woodworking.  He also oversaw the creation of the Readers Digest, Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual.

Prior to becoming an editor, he worked as a carpenter for 15 years and ran his own construction/remodeling company. In addition he works with the staff and students at Bomalang’ombe Secondary School in Tanzania on many projects including establishing a tree farm.

The beginnings of the Tree Farm at Bomalang’ombe Secondary School in Tanzania

His newest book, “The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects” will be presented to the public at a “Book Launch” this coming Thursday, March 27th, from 7:00 to 8:00 pm at the Stillwater Public Library.  Spike will offer a presentation about the book and a demonstration of some woodworking techniques.  He will also be available to autograph his books.  In addition to this presentation, Spike will attend the Rivertown Inn Social Hour on April 5th.  This “meet and greet” with the author is only offered to Rivertown Inn guests who are staying with us that evening.

Our current blog special is a complimentary bottle of wine with your room reservation in March or April.  Simply reserve on-line at and enter the word BLOG as the promotional code, or call us at (651) 430-2955.  This offer can not be combined with any other promotions or discounts.

We are looking forward to seeing you very soon.