Minnesota State Public School: They Were Children...Not Numbers

Anne Peterson's picture

When Minnesota passed the law creating the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in 1885, it was created to be transitional housing for children placed in its care by county courts. Even then, they realized that the best place for a child was in a family setting. Children were sent to the State School to get healthy, get educated, to get good moral training, and then, ideally, to be adopted or placed on a family farm. However, adoption rates were low and children were often placed out under an indenture contract. Some of these situations were good; many others were not. Other children spent their entire childhoods at the State School. By the time the State closed the institution in 1945, social workers and the foster care system were handling children in need.

The Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna, Minnesota, began in 1992 with its mission to remember the children who, through no fault of their own, became wards of the State. The museum’s name is a bit of a misnomer because many of the children were not orphans. They had one or both parents living when they were sent to the State School. Alcoholism, abuse, abandonment, illness or incarceration of the adults were the reasons.


The Orphanage Museum feels fortunate to have 11 books written by or about former State Schoolers in our Gift Shop. However, 11 memoirs out of 10,635 children is a tiny percentage. Every child had a story. Why did they end up in Owatonna? How were they treated? What happened to them as adults? That is why we are always grateful to learn more.

Every child who entered the institution from 1886 – 1945 was given a case file number. The following stories were uncovered in 2016 with the help of family members.

Case #943 – George Drew  Frozen

In April 1894, the four youngest boys in this photo, were placed in the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children after their father abandoned them and their mother. Two years later, young George Drew (far right) was dead. I found this notation by his name: "Died April 1, 1896, Freezing Lamberton Minn." It piqued my curiosity and I was able to connect with Drew relatives.

The event was documented in the April 10, 1896, issue of the Owatonna Journal:

"Superintendent Merrill received a telegram late last week from Redwood County stating that George Drew, a ten-year-old boy who had been placed with a prominent farmer there, had perished in the blizzard which broke over the state last week. It is supposed that George had started to go from the house to the barn during the storm and it is supposed that he was blinded by the storm and either wandered or was blown away. . . . The coroner’s inquest determined the boy’s death was purely accidental and that no one could be held responsible for his death. George had a good home and the people with whom he lived regret his sad death very much."

A letter from a neighbor found in George's State School records contended he was not well treated and was expected to do the work of a much older boy. We'll never know why George was outside in the blizzard.

According to relatives, the other Drew brothers—Charles, Martin, and Joe—went on to live successful lives after their State School experience and did have contact with their mother.

Cases #6149, #6150, #6151, #6152 – Enney Family – Reunion

The death of one parent could quickly tip the financial stability of a family. Many children were placed in the State School because the remaining parent could not be both mother and father. In 1917, Marion Enney delivered twin daughters, but, tragically, Marion and one of the babies died. The father Herbert was left with eight children, aged newborn to 15. A childless couple took the infant, but Herbert struggled to take care of his remaining brood for nearly two years.

Eventually, Kanabec County intervened and the four youngest children were ordered to the care of the State School, “with the request that their stay be prolonged to give H. W. Enney, father of said children, a chance to re-establish his home to the end that they may be returned to him, in possibly two or three years.”

This very rare photo of the Enney children was taken in 1919, the day they entered the State School. It was found by a relative in a Minnesota Historical Society file. Their brave, sad faces capture how it must have felt to leave home and arrive at the castle-like structure on the west hills of Owatonna. Each child was given a case file number. Bernice was 6149, Clarinda was 6150, Herbert 6151, and George 6152. The State School made sure the children in their charge were safe, well-fed, clean, received an education, and learned skills they could use to support themselves. However, individual care and concern received short shrift.

Seven years later, three of the Enney children were living with their father again, although they were still wards of the State. The State Agent checked on them and reported, “The home is an ordinary farm house—not clean. Mr. Enney is trying to do the best he can for the boys. He can’t keep the house clean and do all the farm work too.” Even if it wasn’t clean by “State” standards, the children had returned to their family unit and were getting the individual love and attention they needed from their father. In 1927, Clarinda also returned to her father and their journey with the State system came to a close. However, the effects of separation took a long-term toll on their adult lives.


You are invited to visit the Orphanage Museum to learn more stories of the children and this unique piece of Minnesota history.

Thanks for your great work, Anne Peterson, and your great blog. Here at the East Side Freedom Library in Saint Paul, MN, we are inspired by your work.

There were so many of these children across the Midwest! Wisconsin had a similar state school, and thousands of children passed through it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was so intrigued by this post that I visitede this orphanage museum last week. I had dug around in some archives of orphanages out in Philadelphia a couple years ago, read up on some of their history, and on some of the academic work on orphanages in the late 1800’s and first half of the 1900’s. But while I grew up in Minnesota and moved back to the state from Philly three years ago, I had somehow never heard of the Minnesota Public School State Orphanage Museum! I thank Anne Peterson for taking the time to show me around.

Of course there was some common discourse among orphanage founders and other child savers at the time, but this Owatanna site has some fascinating differences. For example, though they did indenture orphans out to farms for extolling the virtues of outdoor work and robust exercise, the imperative to do so was not the same as it was for folks in the big cities out East. Charles Loring Brace and company were putting children on the now infamous Orphan Trains to get them out of the dangerous and dirty cities and into the purity of the countryside. In Minnesota, the Orphanage was the countryside, with hundreds of open acres including its own working farm. It wasn’t a permanent home for most of the children who entered, but contained all the opportunities for labor, fresh air, and formal schooling that new families were supposed to provide the city orphans.

The site also has the orphanage’s own cemetery, still the resting place for children who died in the home and were never claimed by family. Historically fascinating, as well as deeply touching. I hadn't encountered an orphanage cemetary in Philadelphia. (Though there must have been some?)

Here's a story from a Minnesota that just appeared on 9/30/2017 about a former Minnesota State Public School resident: http://www.startribune.com/orphaned-as-a-baby-88-year-old-bloomington-ma... This bit of Midwest history is still very much alive and relevant.