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Once the largest lake in Faribault County, now vanished

By Staff | May 31, 2020

A floating dredge, above, was used to drain Lake Ozatonka in the early 1900s.

Once upon a time there was one more lake in this state which is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

It was located in Faribault County. If it were still in existence today a person traveling east on Interstate 90 out of Blue Earth could take Exit 128, the Frost/Easton exit, look to the north, and see the lake.

Depending on the publication or map you look at, the lake might have been called Lake Ozatonka, Lake Ozahtonka, Lake Ozatanka, Lake Oza Tanka or Ozah Tanka Lake. For this article, it will be known as Lake Ozatonka.

According to the book Faribault County: A Panorama 1855-1976, Lake Ozatonka once was the largest lake in the county. It was located along the northern border of Emerald Township and the southern border of Barber Township.

Its northern border was only two miles from what was known as Wesner’s Grove, a settlement which predated the city of Easton. Wesner’s Grove was also where the former stage coach trail from Albert Lea forked and went north to Winnebago and south to Blue Earth.

Part of County Road 17, also known as 470th Avenue, was constructed through part of the lake bottom in the early 1980s. The highway cuts through the former shoreline between the trees. Drainage ditches and tile keep the lake drained so it can be farmed.

An excerpt from a book titled The History of Faribault County describes Lake Ozatonka as a fine lake, about two miles long by one and one half miles wide.

It is hard to find much printed information about Lake Ozatonka. But, there is a publication which has an article about the lake.

The story was called “Shooting On A Vanished Lake” and it appeared in the March 21, 1914, publication of Forest and Stream. It was written by Edward T. Martin some 20 years after he had last been on the lake.

Martin describes the lake as being 20 miles from the nearest railroad station and believed it was unheard of by professionals. He also stated his belief he was the first, the last and probably the only seller of game who ever shot at the lake.

It appears the writer discovered the lake by accident. He tells his readers he was chicken shooting late one fall in Minnesota.

There were birds aplenty. They were fully grown, fat and wild enough to make the sport interesting; then one night a prairie fire swept through the country like a red plumed army, destroying every vestige of grass and cover on much of the best hunting ground, leaving only here and there a round patch of slough grass either too green to burn or saved by some fire freak. These spots stood out, little oasis of green in a desert of black, and gave shelter to the chickens until there seemed to be one for every blade of waving grass.

Martin goes on to say he and his driver, who was only 16 years old, noticed a constant flight of ducks coming from all directions, but headed one way, as spokes to a hub.

They trailed the ducks, which were Mallards, until they came upon a road running in the right direction. After traveling several miles on their horses, they saw the water, which Martin described as a muddy cane lake of perhaps a thousand acres.

The horses were turned toward a farmhouse a little off the road, and when the owner came out to greet his visitors, the first question asked was “Do you know where we can hire a boat?”

The farmer’s discouraging reply came, “Ain’t no boat on the lake but mine, and her bows is busted.”

Martin and his companion hitched their horses and went to investigate the boat.

Sure enough, the boat was a sight to behold. A sixteen-foot, slab-sided, coffin shaped contrivance which seemed dangerous, even for navigating a mud-puddle on a calm day.

Martin’s companion suggested they could fix the boat in the morning if they could stay over night at the farm.

“Dunno’s you can stay,” the man answered. “Have to see the woman about that.”

While the farmer and the companion discussed the repairs, Martin went to the house to talk to the lady about board and lodging.

She was doubtful. Didn’t “like them tormented hunters nohow.” But, at the sight of real money some silver dollars she gave in and became as agreeable as a person with a chronically curdled disposition could, and hurried to kill a chicken for supper.

Martin goes on to describe his first day of hunting saying the boat looked like an old mud-covered log. It attracted no attention. He also mentions the ducks were so tame that neither blind, caller nor decoys were really needed.

“The lake was full of ducks and the shooting was so fast it became necessary several times to cool the sizzling gun barrels by dipping them in the water. Had there been a supply of ammunition I would have had the banner day of almost a lifetime spent in duck shooting. But, the shells lasted not quite two hours and a half. All were used.

Martin reported 76 mallards and one goose were picked up that day.

The flight kept up all day, and never in Illinois or Indiana, nor yet in Texas or Missouri, not even in California did I see such Mallard shooting. Seventy-six in two hours and a half; better than one every two minutes.

Martin also told about the meal that evening and what happened when the conversation turned to politics.

It was during a presidential campaign, and the house was divided against itself the man was a democrat and the woman a republican. The writer was dragged into it and I sided with the man. Then the woman insisted that instead of going several miles to vote, her husband should stay at home and husk corn. One word led to another, she getting more and more peeved, not only at him but at everybody.

And finally she turned on me.

“Funny, isn’t it?” she said. “Laughing, are you? Well, let me tell you something. One fool democrat in this house is enough, and you won’t sleep in here tonight.”

The author explained he and his companion ended up sleeping in a grainery, with the rats.

The grainery had a broken window and it snowed during the night. In the morning they found the lake frozen and not a duck in sight.

We commenced a six day shoot. Not many birds remained, and it took hard work, backed by the science of knowing how, acquired in long years of practice, to kill about three hundred, only half which were mallard.

The writer mentions he was able to renew his acquaintance with the quarreling couple but eventually farmer Nelson bought out the pair.

In late October of 1894, the author received a telegram from Nelson saying, “More ducks here than ever before. Can’t all get into the lake at once. Come.”

During eight days of shooting, 559 more ducks were killed and a total of 948 were taken over a 12-day period.

The writer concluded his article with these words.

This was my good-bye to the people of Lake Ozatonka, for when it was so I could return to those parts the lake had been drained and vanished from the map. It had been drained, plowed and planted. Where once stood the imitation rat house blind now grew waving corn; where ducks before had splashed and quacked in thousands, acres of wheat appeared to the view. But while the lake existed there was no better place for mallards in all the great Northwest.

A floating dredge was used to drain Lake Ozatonka in the early 1900s. Parts of the former lake shore are still recognizable today and the farmland in the old lake bed is as flat as a pancake.

News of the lake being great for duck hunting must have lived on for some years.

Tim Nelson, who lives on what would have been the lakeshore, shares a story which has been passed on in the Nelson family.

“It was in the 1930s and the man operating the road grader on one of the roads which goes through the Ozatonka lake bed was stopped by some people with an Illinois license plate on their car,” Nelson explains. “They were looking for Lake Ozatonka because they had heard the Mallard hunting was incredible. ‘Well,” the man said. “You are standing in it.”

If you would like to read the complete article written by Martin as it appeared in Forest and Stream, a digitized version is available online. Conduct a search for Lake Ozatanka and the article should pop up in the results.