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


25 Responses to “In Owatonna: Stories of an orphan’s Christmas”

  1. ceciliag Says:

    Oo that sent chills down my spine. I am still writing the story of how when i was a teenager i was sent to a home for wayward girls..my mother was sick i guess and thought this would teach me a lesson, I did a lot of scrubbing, and laundry. Never as bad as these boys, but .. my back is still quivering.. c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, my goodness, C., what an awful experience for you.

      Several former orphanage residents have written books about their experiences. I’d highly recommend these two: Boy from C-11 Case #9164, A Memoir by Harvey Ronglien and While the Locust Slept by Peter Razor.

  2. Margaret Says:

    Hi Audrey,

    My Dad was an orphan at Owatonna from 1896 to 1898, when he was indentured to a German couple who wanted someone to work for them. I have the marbles he got for Christmas one year, but am not sure exactly which ones they are since they are mixed with some that he got from his indenture parents later on. If I recollect correctly, The Minnesota State School Orphanage was opened a few years before my Dad lived there. The children were not allowed to have contact with any of their siblings because the orphanage was afraid they might make plans for escaping. Back in those days, they had a different philosophy for controlling so many kids and keeping them safe. Simply put, Dad did not want to go back.

    They had to sing their way through all their work in scrubbing, farming, cooking, canning, cleaning, doing laundry, etc., etc. Consequently, my Dad’s indenture mother wrote the social worker that he was the “singingest boy” she had ever known. My Dad sang his way through all his work — even when he raised his own family. His songs were all gospel songs that he dearly loved.

    Thank you for another great post.


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      And thank you, Margaret, for sharing the heartache story of your father’s time in the orphanage. That he sang his way through his work with gospel songs impresses me. What a strong boy/man he must have been.

      • Margaret Says:

        He certainly was, Audrey. His quiet kindness, thoughtfulness, and caring for everybody will always be in my memories. The religious emphasis he had during his stay (in a state-run school, mind you) gave him strength, and a feeling of responsibility in caring for others in need.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        This, then, represents at least one positive that came from his experience.

  3. bdale56 Says:

    I love your two posts on the orphanage! I visited the orphanage about a year ago with my daughter and was equally moved! I wish more people knew about this place. I am really happy you wrote about it with such care, and your photographs depict the reality!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you. I need to return again, in the summer, so I can cover the other aspects of the orphanage not highlighted in these posts.

  4. jlillquist Says:

    Dear Audrey,
    I am a middle school language arts teacher and musical theater director. Our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are doing the play Annie and while searching for ideas on how to build the beds for our principal orphans, I came across your site. We are using your photograph of the orphan beds to build our own for the show.

    The Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna, Minnesota, is right on my way home to visit my mom. I plan to take a visit to help with my summer writing.

    My family and I found out for the first time ever that my husband’s grandmother was taken from her home and placed in a state orphanage after her own mother died. Someone decided that her father was not capable of taking care of so many small children while he was working. She said they ran wild while he was out!

    Once placed, she would wave across the lunchroom at her two brothers. When she was finally fortunate enough to be adopted, her new family decided one year to go back to the orphanage to adopt her sister. That was her birthday present! She was in her 80’s when she told us this story.

    She never saw her brothers again once she left the orphanage and she could not bear to tell us what eventually happened to her sister.

    In my research for our play, I began formulating an idea of somehow showing our audience how important it is for us to count our blessings. I for one am very thankful for a warm home and comfortable bed! It gives me a heavy heart knowing that the orphan children of those days were not so fortunate, my husband’s dear grandmother among them.

    The images and stories have moved me in such a way that I feel led to create an exhibit of orphan beds. It has become a part of the story that we will tell, and before our play begins, the audience will file in and see an exhibit of as many orphan beds as I can get my 6th grade class to construct. Using simple materials and white sheets, we might be able to pull this off. There will be a very brief write-up posted near the exhibit, along with a reminder to thank the Lord always and count our many blessings. Our families are blessed and that’s the message for the exhibit.

    The beds pay homage to the orphan boys and girls of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our plucky little orphan girls get to play that role for a little while. Some children played that role their entire lives. This is simply to honor their memory and I sincerely thank you for sharing your site.

    May God bless you!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Wow. I am nearly speechless and deeply humbled that one of my photos would provide such inspiration. What a wonderful thing you are doing with your theater students. I would love to see photos of those beds and your performance. I will email you with my contact information.

      Also, the story of your grandmother and her siblings is so incredibly sad, but not unlike all too many stories told by those who called an orphanage home. Your grandmother would be proud of you.

      • jlillquist Says:

        I would be happy to send you photos. Our performance is April 26-27 and I can send pictures of the work in progress along with the final exhibit. While there is much work to be done in making the beds, it is my hope and prayer that they are a worthy symbol of the work done by the children who made those orphan beds first. Thank you again!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Fantastic. I will email you shortly.

  5. Marsha Riddle (Guy) Says:

    I just wondered if anyone remembers my dad….

    My dad was a ward of the school from about 1925-1938. He came at about the age of 1, left when he was about 13 when his birth mother, Dorothy Guy, stopped to see what happened to him and found out he was still there. So she took him home. He, clearly, had nothing but anger and sorrow for his mother. He committed suicide at the age of 48—a bitter m and brilliant man, but with a PHd and just having been granted tenure at the University of Washington, Seattle. My mom is also now gone to cancer. I remember many stories from my dad—of him being “adopted” and returned for setting an accidental fire when he was about 4—had a bicycle there, they didn’t tell him he was being “returned“ to the orphanage and he never forgot. Stories of him running away and hopping trains only to be caught—and because of that, of having his first root beer, with a social worker who caught him at about age 12 and took him to have a root beer before taking him back to the orphanage. Of a friend..might have been Jimmy? Who was in the sick ward with him..Jimmy was very sick, my dad was apparently a sickly kid—I do wonder why as I have a daughter now with a heart condition and wonder if my dad’s health could shed any info..but “Jimmy” apparently got CHICKEN to eat (apparently rare for the residents) and would tell my dad to eat it and to tell the staff that Jimmy had eaten it so that the doctors would leave Jimmy alone and think Jimmy was getting better. My dad did, the other boy died and I think my dad always felt responsible.

    Apparently my father contacted or went to the orphanage as an adult, hoping to find some trace of his childhood and found very little…….

    My father had (later in life) four birth children and one adopted son.

    Does anyone remember him ? A skinny blond boy, named Victor? I so want to know more about my father….

    Thank you for any response-

    Marsha (Guy) Riddle

    360 647 0457

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Dearest Marsha,

      Reading these stories about your dad’s time at the Owatonna orphanage simply breaks my heart. For him to have endured such difficulties, physical and emotional…

      Readers, if any of you have information about Marsha’s father, Victor, please email or call her.

      Please keep me updated.

  6. Lisa Jones Says:

    I visited the orphanage today and was deeply touched by it. I visited the cemetery and I was so sad for these children. The volunteer staffing today was very sweet but naive too. There were several of us there today who felt sadness for these children who were torn away from their siblings and family. The employee defended the state. She reminded us that the children received three meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in. And that many of their families were horrible. Never mind that there was no love. No personal attention. Abusive matrons if you were unlucky. What if a child got hungry at midnight? Anyway. For me, I didn’t see this as a positive place. I saw it as an institution and a dehumanizing experience for these children who were assigned numbers. I am glad they fed their bodies but they didn’t feed their spirits or their minds. The numbered graves in the cemetery was proof of that. I’m glad their are names on stones today. But still. No dates. And no words of love.

    • Lisa, I certainly understand how you feel and I expect most who visit the former orphanage and read the stories would express the exact same sentiments. I am sorry for the impression you received from the employee.

      Perhaps a movement needs to begin to add dates and words of love. Any suggestions?

      Recently here in Faribault, a monument was dedicated at a cemetery to note the unmarked graves of Faribault State Hospital residents. It’s a start toward dignity for those deceased individuals.

  7. david brasket Says:

    Very very sad. I feel quite fortunate to be raised by a loving family of 2 parents and 2 brothers and 2 sisters.

  8. wilson hall Says:

    my dad was in the orphanage in the 1920s 1930s he did not talk alot about it

  9. Terry Says:

    Both of my maternal grandparents lived at the orphanage from the late 1890’s on and off through their childhood. My grandfathers name was Lenard Matson, and my grandmother’s name was Ada Johnson. If you have any information about either of them I would appreciate hearing about their lives.

    Thank you.

  10. coral miller Says:

    I was just reading through, I to had a family member at the Orphanage. His name was Guy Chatfield, he was brought there when he was 2 years old and tragically died when he was 15, he is buried in the cemetery. I do have a copy of his file, but unfortunately no photos of him. I’ve been hoping someone could identify him in one of the pictures? Harvey does a fabulous tribute about his funeral. He was brought there in the late 20’s. If anyone could help I would Greatly appreciate it!

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