Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Owatonna: Stories of an orphan’s Christmas December 19, 2011

Cottage 11, built in 1923, as one of 16 cottages at the former Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. Designed to house 25 boys ages 6 - 13, this cottage typically was home to 30 - 35 youth.

AS WE HURRY ACROSS the hilltop campus toward Cottage 11 at the former Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, the raw wind slapping our cheeks, Silvan Durben advises us to refrain from jumping on the beds.

He’s a character, that Silvan, energetic and flamboyant and passionate. And truthful. This director of art at the Owatonna Arts Center, which is housed in the main building of the former orphanage, shares a tidbit of truth. The children who once lived here weren’t allowed to sleep on their pillows. So if my husband and I slid the for-show-only pillows off the beds and onto the floor, we’d have it right.

The boys' bedrooms are stark, devoid of anything homey. This small room slept three.

With that piece of information imparted, Silvan unlocks the door into Cottage 11, today preserved as part of the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum complex in Owatonna.

Within these walls, which housed boys ages 6 – 13 from 1923 – 1945 in the state school orphanage, we will learn more of the unsettling truths during a self-guided tour. Typically, the cottage is staffed, but on this Sunday afternoon it is not and Silvan has allowed us inside, on our own, to explore. He trusts us, he says, and I am grateful for this opportunity to wander.

Entering a now-enclosed porch that serves as a gift shop and then stepping into the adjoining living room, I am surprised that I feel, initially, impressed by my surroundings. Visually, I am pleased by the natural light flooding this room through the abundant windows, by the dark woodwork, by the fireplace, by the narrow wood-slat floor, by the cozy cluster of vintage furniture grouped near the Christmas tree surrounded by piles of presents.

But looks, as I immediately learn, can be deceiving.

The living room was off limits to the boys except on special occasions.

A view from the hallway looking toward the living room fireplace. Each week the boys polished the floor and furniture in this forbidden space. They also scrubbed floors throughout the cottage.

The posted words of the orphan boys reveal the truth:

…the toy trucks were taken away a few days after Christmas and hidden in the attic to be gifted again the next year.—Cottage 11 Boy

The truth revealed about Christmas from the memories of the Cottage 11 boys.

And the lovely living room? Apparently just for show, too, except on special occasions like Christmas Eve when the boys gathered here around the tree and were allowed to stay up past their usual 7:30 p.m. bedtime until 9 p.m.

Christmas brought but a moment of happiness to these children who otherwise lived under rigid rules and the domination of mostly uncaring matrons. (Arguably, some of these children may have lived equally difficult, or worse, lives had they remained in their previous circumstances/environments.)

Some happy Christmas memories from the boys.

Christmas brought the local Rotarians into the school auditorium to sing carols and pass out boxes of hard candy. Christmas brought several gifts—perhaps Tinker Toys, or marbles or puzzles—for each child.

The stairway between the first and second floors and a shot of the cottage's front door at the bottom of the frame. The boys were never allowed to use the front door. They entered and exited through the basement.

I cannot even begin to fathom living here under unforgiving discipline, sleeping in stark bedrooms crammed with kids, missing out on the love of family.

Unlike the mother image she was expected to portray, Miss Morgan (the matron) could be hard and cruel. Only rarely could she be kind and compassionate.

As I meander through the rooms peering at the black-and-white photos of mostly unsmiling boys and reading about their fears of scoldings and spankings and of scrubbing floors on their hands and knees and being confined primarily to the basement, my heart hurts. Truly.

You can see it in the boys' faces, the desperate need to be loved.

On signage titled “The Basement,” I read of  the prevailing authoritarian attitude:

Permission was always required to leave the basement.

Each boy was assigned a chair in the basement. "The chair kept order and accountability" to the matron.

Listening to a recording of a man who as a boy had his head slammed into a wall for prematurely removing a tie and cuffing a matron, I can still hear the hurt in his voice.

I can almost feel the pain experienced by cottage resident Arlend “Buzz” Wilson who slipped and scalded himself with hot water while scrubbing the basement steps. He ended up hospitalized for his burns.

In the first floor matron's quarters, a young boy was placed in the rocking chair to the left and his head slammed into the wall for disobedience. He removed his tie too soon and cuffed the matron.

But for all the awful stories shared here, occasionally glimmers of hope slip through—of boys who admired hobos and hopped the nearby train to escape and of “Wednesday Night at the Movies,” when movies were shown in the school auditorium. Those “brought great joy to us children.”

And then, the single gem I found among all the stones:

FYI: Cottage 11 is open from1 p.m. – 3 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday. However, I advise calling in advance (507-774-7369) as it was not open when we arrived on a Sunday afternoon. Hours at the main museum, 540 West Hills Circle, Owatonna, are from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. on weekends. I have previously toured the museum, but did not do so again on this most recent visit.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for additional photos of Cottage 11.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling