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Owatonna is in Steele County, for which is serves as the county seat. It is in lower eastern Minnesota. The community was settled along the Straight River in 1853, and is an Anglicization of the Dakota word for the river, which is Wakpá Owóthaŋna. The settlement was platted in the fall of 1855, incorporated as a town in August of 1858, and as a city in February of 1865. An important early resident was Josef Karel Kaplan, who came from Bohemia to homestead a 160-acre parcel of land in 1856. He described the settlement then, as having about fifty homes, but predicted a hundred, as well as a railroad. He helped to organize the Catholic Cemetery in Owatonna, and was one of the founders of the National Bohemian Cemetery of Owatonna. The area known as Kaplan's Woods is part of the original 160 acres owned by Kaplan, which later became a state park, now owned by the city. A large orphanage, known as the Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children, operated in Owatonna from 1886 to 1945, when it became a school for the mentally handicapped, which closed in 1970. The city now uses the compound for the town offices, a senior center, arts center, a couple of daycare centers, a chemical dependency home, and other offices and non-profit agencies. The 1995 film, Angus, was filmed on location in Owatonna, mostly at its high school. Don Laughlin, the founder of Laughlin, Nevada, was born and raised in Owatonna. Owatonna is centered just north of the intersection of Interstate Highway 35 and US Highway 14. Clinton Falls and Medford are just north of the city, Merton is northeast, Havana east, Saco and Steele Center south, Lemond to the southwest, and Meriden west of Owatonna. Faribault is about fifteen miles north, Albert Lea is about thirty-five miles south, and Rochester and Mankato are about forty-five miles east and west, respectively.

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