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Marvelous Wonderettes

Jaime Jennessen and Paige Anselmo discuss harmonies, wardrobes and more prior to rehearsal starting. (Emily Kahnke/southernminn.com)

House, circa 1855, to be auctioned Oct. 18
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A notable, if not frequently noted, piece of Faribault’s history is scheduled to go on the auction block Oct. 18.

Preceding that fateful date is a 10 to 11 a.m. open house Monday that will allow prospective buyers a chance to tour the tax-forfeited property at 805 Central Ave.

The modest Greek revival-style structure was built in 1855 with lumber that likely arrived via oxen teams from the Red Wing or Hastings areas.

“Yes, it’s in danger of extinction,” said Susan Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society.

“There aren’t a lot of homes from the 1850s in Faribault that are in relatively good condition, but this is a unique home that remains close to its original 1855 layout — it’s only had one addition to it, at the back — and because there’s a chance a business was run out of it at one time, it may possibly be one of the oldest commercial buildings still standing in Minnesota.”

The house, as well as its storied history, is somewhat up for grabs. Despite having weathered more than 166 Minnesota winters and an unknowable number of tenants, 805 Central Ave. may be close to outliving its metaphorical nine lives.

Sitting on an unusually narrow yet long lot (its backyard abuts the Straight River Trail near Trail’s Edge Park), the property lacks a front yard and direct street access. Although it was clearly first on the block, today 805 Central Ave. is wedged between a private residence and an apartment complex.

“It’s landlocked,” observed Garwood. “There’s no way to legally get to any parking in the back, and that likely adds to the struggle with it.”

Garwood has puzzled over the property’s prospects, though the Rice County Historical Society is not in a position to purchase it.

“Its history is part of our jurisdiction, and it’s one of the few early, early buildings in Rice County,” said Garwood.

“It certainly needs some restoration work, but overall it’s a stable, solid structure,” she continued.

“But how do you buy it if you can’t park near it? You couldn’t turn it into a commercial space or a museum because there is no place for customer parking, and I’ve wondered whether the city or county could use it for emergency housing — then again, you have the easement and parking issues.”

And 805 Central Ave., which has seen continuous use over its 166-year life to date, is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor does it fall within Faribault’s downtown historic district, which would lend it some protected status.

There is no shortage of historic speculation about the house; one account, researched in part by a previous owner, suggests 805 Central Ave. initially functioned as a general store, with its back (east) addition put on by its second owner, James Scott, around 1857. Scott and his brother Henry founded Faribault’s first sawmill.

Others have pondered if the French Canadian Norbert Paquin may have been associated with the place, since he operated a supply depot out of the nearby 814 Central Ave.

Garwood cautions that historical research requires careful detective work and ample documentation.

“There’s a lot of really rich information, but not every source is equal,” said Garwood.

“Whenever you’re dealing with something historic, it’s like a game of telephone, and 165 years later, the opportunity for a story to morph is high,” she continued.

“The only way to really untangle the correct history is to dig deep and do primary research again.”

Garwood credits a past owner, Rich Dietrich, with having delved into the house’s history and made the effort to preserve it.

“Mr. Dietrich’s work was invaluable,” said Garwood. “He was the first who really worked to learn some of the building’s story, and his time and energy were well invested in saving the historic home.”

It’s changed hands a couple times since Dietrich’s ownership and was recently tax-forfeited. Rice County finally moved it toward the imminent public auction.

The property’s current appraised value is $30,200; a past real estate listing indicated it was a three-bedroom, one bath house with approximately 1,300 square feet. But the interior is largely unfinished, ripped to the studs, an unfinished remodel in progress.

Garwood, head of the Rice County Historical Society since 2003, has a “perfect world” vision for the house’s future.

“The best case scenario would be that someone will recognize its valuable historic qualities — the six-over-six windows, its beautiful doors — and buy it,” said Garwood.

“They would choose to not make any significant changes and would work with the neighboring property owners to ensure access to the house so they could make it a usable space for a tenant or themselves.”

Despite the factual uncertainties surrounding 805 Central Ave. and its origins, some aspects of it are as true and grounded as its enduring limestone foundation.

“The house is unique and we know for a fact, from maps and photos, it was built in the mid-1850s,” said Garwood.

“It’s clearly one of Faribault’s earliest homes, and even if we can’t be certain it was used commercially, it has historical significance.”

While it’s anybody’s guess as to who might step forward to buy 805 Central Ave. at the upcoming auction, Garwood remains hopeful the right buyer may materialize.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see old homes for their unique beauty,” she said. “But if new owners can find a way to legally access the house from one easement or another, that would be fabulous.

“Fingers crossed someone will see its value and take it on.”

Plans in the works to honor past, present veterans with banner program
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While on a recent vacation, Virgina van Sluis came across banners in a community that recognized military personnel through the Hometown Heroes Banner program.

Van Sluis, who comes from a military family, is the chair of the Veterans Committee at the Faribault Elks Lodge and was one of three chairs who brought the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to Faribault in 2016. For her, adding another way to honor those in the military who give so much of their time was an easy decision. She found out the banners were part of the Hometown Heroes Banner program, which first started in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Hoping to bring this project to Faribault, van Sluis has taken part in meetings with city/chamber staff, including the Faribault City Council’s most recent work session, on how to make the project work in the community.

Parks and Recreation Director Paul Peanasky led the discussion during the council’s Oct. 5 work session, and van Sluis was in attendance to answer questions.

Peanasky explained the Elks would be a sponsor of the banners, and the Chamber of Commerce would help assist with financing and depositing funds that come in. The only cost to the city could be setting up and taking the banners down. Initial plans indicate banners would stay up for six months and be changed out in May and November. By replacing every other banner, Peanasky estimated there being about 30 to 35 banners that could go up at one time. Along with current banners in the downtown area, other locations could be in the riverbend, bluffs and mills areas.

Overall, a majority of the council was in favor of the project and made a few suggestions for organizers to consider. Van Sluis said she was glad to have the interaction with the council, and appreciates the input they provided.

With only 30 to 35 spots available at one time, Councilor Sara Caron grew concerned about how the selection committee would decide who can be honored and who can’t. Van Sluis told Caron that the maximum number of participants would have to be told up front, and it would be on a first come, first serve basis, which is how other states operate their programs.

Thinking of the large amount of veterans that could be honored in the program, Caron wondered what the criteria would be and worried some people could be left out. She also suggested going through a vetting process to find out a little bit more about the veterans, and make sure they are upstanding citizens in the community.

Mayor Kevin Voracek said he liked the program and asked how long the banners could be rotated through. Though it wasn’t brought up in previous meetings, Peanasky assumed it could be however long they wanted it to be. Voracek added there could be a lot of people honored through this program, and it could be something longer term.

Focusing on the overall picture, Councilor Janna Viscomi recommended putting the banners along Fourth Street and replacing the blue banners with the veteran banners.

“Fourth Street has a long road, and that seems to be the most logical way to honor, then it ends right at the courthouse,” said Viscomi. “If I were to promote this, I don’t want [people] running all throughout town, I want to make it easy for tourists to find. They’re all right down the middle of our community and very visible.”

If banners were peppered throughout town, Voracek recommended putting together a GS map so people can find where they are located.

Van Sluis said in the town they drove through, the banners were initially placed downtown and then they had to expand into other areas due to a growth of interest from participants. She envisions requesting each participant to write a short caption about the individual honored to include in a booklet, as part of a walking tour.

Also in support of the idea, Councilor Jonathan Wood suggested adding the dates the individual served to the banners.

Councilor Tom Spooner was on board with only including the banners along the central corridor, where it creates an element of importance. Otherwise, some could be upset with being in a location where there isn’t as much traffic as another area. Van Sluis agreed saying that it has to have continuity.

Councilor Royal Ross suggested letting the citizen committee fine tune the ideas and decide on locations.

“I don’t think the seven of us need to micro-manage it,” said Ross. “I approve; let them run with it.”

Van Sluis said they plan on moving forward with the program, in hopes to have them up in time for Veterans Day. In the meantime, they will continue to develop parameters for who qualifies for the banners, how to apply and where they will be located. Since the banners are expected to be placed along city streets, the program will need final approval from the council at a regular meeting.

Pictured from left to right: Diane Guse – Steele County Toys for Tots Treasurer, Harvey Farr – BOB Ride, George Walter – Steele County Toys for Tots Volunteer. (Submitted photo)

Williams murder trial begins with jury selection

Over three years after the alleged fatal stabbing of a Faribault man by his romantic partner, jury trial began this week, as prosecutors aim to prove the guilt of the sole suspect.

Judana Catherine Williams, 28, is on trial, charged with felonies for second-degree murder and second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. Prosecutors say that Williams killed her boyfriend at the time, 53-year-old Michael Bongers, by stabbing him with a knife on Sept. 7, 2018.

Williams, who had a history of domestic violence in which Bongers was the victim, was found by police kneeling over Bongers and covered in blood, according to the complaint. The knife, allegedly used to stab Bongers, was close by. Williams and Bongers were the only two people in the home at the time of the murder, and her statements to another officer that “he ran up on me, he ran up on me,” can be used against Williams.

However, a recorded confession from Williams will not be admissible, because she was not read her Miranda Rights ahead of time. In April 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal filed by the Rice County Attorney’s Office, which viewed the evidence as a potential linchpin in its case against Williams. The decision to bar the defendant’s testimony from use at trial was originally made in July 2019 by Rice County District Court Judge Christine Long, subsequently upheld in January by the state Appeals Court.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum still feels the office has a strong case against Williams, and, led by Chief Assistant County Attorney Adam Johnson, the prosecutors will present evidence and witnesses to prove their case over several days of trial. Williams’ defense will be led by attorney Kassius O. Benson, of Minneapolis.

The first week of the trial consisted of jury selection, which attorneys and Judge Long were able to finish by the end of Thursday, meaning presentation of evidence and witnesses can begin Monday, Oct. 11. The jurors were interviewed individually, an atypical process brought on by COVID and the complexities of this case. Attorneys on both sides were able to select and deselect, ultimately coming to a consensus jury.

According to Rice County Court Administrator Lisa Kuhlman, the trial will take place in Courtroom 5, a temporary setup in the Rice County Government Services Building. The media and public will be allowed to watch from Courtroom 2 at the courthouse, where the trial will be displayed via Zoom.

Fossum expects the trial to last a couple weeks.

“Presentation of evidence, examination of the witnesses, the whole shebang, I guess,” he said.