An uncle's collection gives insight to area's history
Tuesday, April 08, 2014 9:58 AM
It was May 20, 1957, when the Rochester Post Bulletin featured an article on my great-uncle, O.R. Steffens, as shown in the accompanying photo. At the time, Uncle Ort was 82 years old and had spent a lifetime collecting Indian artifacts from along Deer Creek. He claimed to have walked every inch of the Root River to Chatfield. Orson Richard Steffens was born in Fillmore County in 1875, seventh child of Richard and Mercy Steffens, who settled just east of Racine in 1870. My grandfather, Harry Hale, was born three years later. Richard's brother, Ephraim Steffens, built the "estate" on the corner of North Broadway and Grant St. in Spring Valley, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here Uncle Ort displays part of his collection of Indian relics which he
accumulated of 50 years.
Uncle Ort, in 1957, was one of the oldest residents in Racine, and recognized as an authority on Racine history as well as through his collection of Indian relics. He had begun his hobby about 1906 after he moved from the family farm in Sumner Township to Racine, where he became manager of the lumber company. He said he first began picking up items while fishing, then as his interest grew, he hiked along the riverbanks looking for more. He said searching for relics was something of a science - most artifacts where found along rivers or on a hill near a spring where Indians would have camped. In later years farmers tended to plow very close to the riverbanks or springs, and when hard rains came, the soil would be washed away exposing the relics more readily.
As a member of the Minnesota Archeological Association, he often assisted the group in locating and investigating Indian mounds, and wrote stories for the magazine. The Spring Valley Historical Society has in its files a report on such an investigation of a group of mounds about four miles north of town. The report was written by Professor Lloyd Wilford in 1952 when a team excavated a small square in each mound. It was noted that the area had at one time been under cultivation, and very few relics were found - only a flint knife, one arrowhead and pottery shards. A few "burial bundles" were found but the bones so fragmented that no determination could be made. He noted that any bones encountered were left undisturbed and re-covered when they finished. Little was found and it was determined these burial sites may have been for Indians of the "Southern Minnesota Aspect of the Woodland Culture, probably of the Middle Woodland period," perhaps 3000 to 1300 B.C.
Of the artifacts found, which could have been much later, the knife was an excellent specimen of pink chert. Steffens went on to tell that studies showed most of the Indians in this area were Sioux, who would make arrowheads and knives from flint, wearing it down by washing and rubbing with sand. Perhaps they used the source of material from those pits near Grand Meadow we read about years ago, the pits now protected areas. Steffens had over 200 artifacts mounted in large frames, plus several hundred more, and could tell you exactly where each piece had been found. I remember some of his collection was exhibited at the Fillmore County historical society, on loan, but in later years the family reclaimed the relics.
Ort married Sadie Eppard of Racine in 1899, and they had two children, Merwin and Alice Ella. Steffens retired in 1950 from his position at the lumberyard which was located next to the railroad line that came from the north in 1890, the Winona & Southwestern, later the Chicago Great Western. The tracks were taken out in the 1970s, and I wonder if readers realize the high embankment on the west city limits is man-made, thanks to that railroad. Yes, tales of the trestle, the 1930s Lake George recreation area, the golf course, etc. - fun stories of real history!
If you are "into" Indian artifacts, a splendid exhibit can be seen at the Methodist Church Museum on West Courtland. Gary Erickson, retired schoolteacher, acquired the collection of the late Mearl Raygor of Stewartville who was considered an expert lecturer and wrote "Indians of Southeastern Minnesota" in 1978. Gary's fascinating display, on loan, contains spear points, scrapers, hammers, and much more. The museums will open Memorial weekend, and we suggest you allow two hours to see the entire museum complex.