It All Began
A New Welfare Policy | Minnesota Legislation – 1885
The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children was created
by the legislature in 1885 as a state-of-the-art institution. The act passed
by the Minnesota Legislature was almost an exact copy of the Michigan Law.
The State Public School in Coldwater, Michigan was considered a model in every
Owatonna was chosen as the site for this new school over eight other
proposed sites due to its easy access to railroads and its location near the
center of the most densely populated rural portion of the state.
Dependent children are not delinquent and can be saved. Preventative
measures such as a pastoral environment and discipline could render children
deprived of a family acceptable to a new family.
Family-Like Life in Cottages
Cottages will consist of approximately 25 children with a female matron
as surrogate mother. It is hoped the children will live in the cottage less
than a year while eating in a common dining room and working, playing, and
Being Placed Out
If possible, the dependent children “after their basic training,” will
be “placed-out,” (adopted, fostered or indentured) preferable in
rural homes. State agents will be responsible for selecting “suitable
homes” for the children, and for annual inspection thereafter of such
The State Public School will be a State Primary School where the children,
until they can be adopted or indentured, can be educated morally and mentally,
and also taught habits of industry.
Emphasis on Discipline and Useful Labor
Order, usefulness and discipline will be stressed, as well as obedience
and efficiency. Gentle and loving measures will be advocated, but the value
of drill, discipline and labor can never be underestimated.
It is believed labor, no matter how dreary the task, or how paltry the
remuneration, is good for the children. Each child, no matter the age, should
be a part of some “worth-while, demanding activity” each day.
Adopted in Minnesota
Once admitted, children would become part of the following institutional
“Family-like” life in cottages
Emphasis on discipline and useful labor
At the height of its existence, the school housed 500 children in 16 cottages.
Other buildings included a nursery, hospital, school, gymnasium, laundry,
and superintendent and employee residences. The school had its own power
plant, greenhouse, icehouse, cemetery, and complete farm operation with
cows, horses, swine and chickens, making it virtually self-sufficient.
The Main Building served as the nerve center of the school. Built in 1886
at a cost of $50,000, it housed the superintendent’s office, staff
offices, reception room, library, chapel, children and employees’
dining rooms, industrial departments, and small boys’ living quarters.
The upper floors contained living quarters for employees.
Originally housed on 160 acres, the grounds grew to 329 acres by 1937
with 42 acres for campus and 287 acres for farm cultivation.
Orphanage Phased Out
1945 - 1970
Social changes caused the orphanage to be phased out by 1945. For the
next twenty-five years, the school provided both academic and vocational
programs for the educable mentally disabled.
City of Owatonna Purchases Property
After standing empty for four years, the city of Owatonna purchased the
property in 1974 to house its city administrative offices and other related
The “State School Kids” Memorial, Museum, and cemetery monument
and crosses on the children’s graves marked the beginning of almost
twelve years (and counting) of State School restoration.
The Museum continued to expand in the next years and new signage was added
to the grounds.
The Museum became a tax-exempt 501.c organization and elected a nine-person
Board of Directors. The Board’s mission is to preserve the history
of the grounds and to remember the children. The West Hills Commission
and City of Owatonna provide invaluable support to the Museum and Board.
After two years of production, the State School documentary video “The
Children Remember” was complete.
The original Rock Garden was recreated and a new flag pole plaza was erected
honoring State School boys
killed in World War II. Dedication of these two sites occurred during
Owatonna’s Sesquicentennial celebration, along with other events
held on the West Hills grounds.
The City of Owatonna turned over Henderson Hall (formerly Cottage 11)
to the Orphanage Museum for future restoration.
Four new outdoor Audio Stations were installed to help visitors understand
the buildings and grounds as they existed during the orphanage era. This
tour walks the visitor through the beautiful campus leading eventually
to the Children’s Cemetery.
New Recognition for State School Preservations
The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota named the Orphanage Museum “One
of the 25 Best Preserved Historic Sites in Minnesota” during the
past 25 years.