Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Wisconsin school honors orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” April 25, 2013

The main building at the orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys' cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building.

The main building at the Owatonna orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys’ cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building. File photo from December 20, 2011, blog post.

THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY miles from the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna, a group of Lutheran school students in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, just southwest of Milwaukee, are honoring orphan children of the 1920s and 1930s.

The story of how this came to be involves me, a dedicated and creative middle school language arts teacher/musical theater director, and a bit of personal family history.

Several weeks ago, teacher Judy Lillquist, a native of Le Sueur, MN., who has lived in Wisconsin for 20-plus years, commented on a December 2011 blog post I published after a visit to the Owatonna museum. (Click here to read that story.)  She discovered my orphanage stories while researching for her school’s production of  Annie Jr. My posts included photos of simple orphans’ beds in a stark orphanage bedroom. (Click here to read my second orphanage post.)

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

This photo of an orphan’s bed inspired Lillquist to create “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The orphans were not allowed to sleep on their pillows; those were just for show. File photo.

Those orphan bed photos inspired Lillquist to work with her students in creating “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” which accompanies the school’s spring musical, Annie Jr., showing this Friday and Saturday at Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School.

Working with middle schoolers on a musical seems challenging enough. So I really have to admire Lillquist’s efforts to personally connect her students and audience members to the plight of actual orphans via “The Orphan Bed Exhibit.” The exhibit includes a synopsis of the inspiration behind the project.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

The orphan bed designed by Lillquist.

Using cardboard boxes, paper, tape, glue, clearance bed sheets and other everyday materials, Lillquist’s sixth graders built 20 orphan beds. Those attending the musical will see silent orphan statues (students), attired in tattered dresses, stationed next to those beds.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the cottage.

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the Owatonna orphanage cottages. File photo.

The scene is meant to make a powerful impact. Lillquist explains:

In my research for the 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 beds pay homage to the orphan boys and girls of the 1920s and 30s. 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.

A photo of some of the school's residents on exhibit in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 - 13.

An Owatonna school orphans photo displayed in Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 – 13.

For Lillquist’s family, this is personal as her husband’s grandmother and siblings were placed in a state orphanage after their mother died. Lillquist shares:

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 80s 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.

Can you imagine?

I expect “The Orphan Bed Exhibit,” combined with the theatrical performance of Annie Jr., will drive home the message Lillquist intends:

Our families are blessed and that’s the message of the exhibit.

FYI: Hales Corners Lutheran Middle School, 12300 West Janesville Road, Hales Corners, Wisconsin, presents “The Orphan Bed Exhibit” at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 26, and at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27. The curtain rises on Annie Jr. a half hour later.

Thank you to Hales Corners students, and especially to Lillquist, for their dedication to this project. I am honored to have been, in some small way, a part of this undertaking.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“The Orphan Bed Exhibit” image courtesy of Judy Lillquist


Inside the Owatonna orphanage museum: Heartbreaking stories and photos January 18, 2012

A telegram sent to an Owatonna orphanage in 1892 announcing the arrival of two sisters.


Please meet Godman and two little waifs afternoon train.

It is an archaic word, that word “waif.” So I must page through my Webster’s New World Dictionary to confirm that I fully understand its meaning.

I read:

2 a person without home or friends; esp. a homeless child   3 a stray animal

The definition is mostly as I expect, except for the “stray animal” part.

It hurts my heart to read the telegram sent in 1892 to the Minnesota State Public School for Neglected and Dependent Children in Owatonna.

It hurts even more to view the photo of the “waifs,” sisters Mary and Clara, taken on the day they arrived. You can see the despair in their eyes, almost hear their wailing, feel their terror. If I could step back into time, to that day in August 1892, I would wrap those little girls in my arms and hold them and stroke their hair and give them all the love they never knew.

Sisters Mary and Clara, upon their arrival at the Minnesota State School.

Of all the documents and images displayed at the former school, now a museum, this one of the sisters sticks with me for the emotions it captures and evokes. I first saw the photo several years ago during an initial visit to the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum. I have never forgotten it.

This past weekend I was back at the orphanage site to tour a new Owatonna Arts Center exhibit, “Where are the Children,” by Judy Saye-Willis. The Northfield artist taps into the location to pull together an introspective display about children with input from a variety of artists and a writer. I was especially impressed with the graphite drawings of children by Cambridge artist Marilyn M. Cuellar. (Note that Cuellar’s art pieces displayed in Owatonna are copies and not originals.)

The former state school dining area is now a beautiful public venue.

After perusing that exhibit, I walked toward the museum part of the building, through the former school dining room that today serves as a venue for wedding receptions, concerts and more. I hadn’t intended to go to the museum, but my husband had already wandered over there.

Signage under a state school photo in a section of the museum.

This visit I didn’t study each document and photo in depth. Rather, I swept through the U-shaped exhibit area, focusing on specific segments to photograph like the 1892 telegram and photos of the two sisters, including this one taken at a later date.

Mary and Clara, hardly recognizable as the same sisters who arrived in 1892.

I paused, though, to listen to a visitor talk to me privately about her father and an aunt who lived here. She spoke without a hint of bitterness, which surprised me given the negative experiences of many children who called this school home. Her father eventually was placed with a southern Minnesota farm family. In many instances, these families physically and emotionally abused the state schoolers. Her father, she said, was hit once, but never again.

Contracts were signed between the school and families, typically farm families, allowing state schoolers to live with and work for these families. The families were to provide $100 in wages and two suits of clothing.

Later, I would photograph a radiator brush, “a Matron’s favorite tool for punishment,” according to the Fall 2010 issue of the museum newsletter, The Radiator Brush.

A dreaded radiator brush rests atop a radiator in the museum.

Next, I photographed “the chair,” also used to punish children.

Chairs like this one on display in the museum were used to control and punish children and keep them in their place.

I cannot imagine living here in this institution, separated from family.

Yet the school, despite its failings, offered for many children a better alternative than remaining in abusive and neglectful home settings too tragic to even fathom.

And so that is how sisters Mary and Clara, two little waifs who had been “the victims of extreme cruelty and neglect,” ended up on a train bound for the Minnesota Public School for Neglected and Dependent Children.

One of the photos on display in the museum of a matron and her girls.

A snippet of a letter from third grader Arthur Peterson to his mother. You can almost hear the desperation in his words: "I hope you will come up to see me."

Museum exhibits, mostly in words and photos, but also artifacts, tell visitors about life at the state school.

This photo of a little state school boy caught my eye. The museum's collection includes more than 1,100 original photos and an additional 150 reproductions. You can't help but be moved by such soulful images.

Patricia Ann Pearson, 7, left, and her sister, Yvonne, 9, on the day they were separated. They would not see each other for 33 years. Theirs is only one of thousands of heart-wrenching stories of separation.

FYI: From 1886-1945, nearly 11,000 orphaned, abused and/or abandoned children were sent to the Minnesota State Public School for Neglected and Dependent Children. Today visitors can tour the former school grounds, including a cottage and the cemetery. Click here to learn more about the museum. In 2011, an estimated 7,000 visitors toured the museum and Cottage 11.

Click here and then click here to read two previous blog posts I published about C-11.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part II: Life as an orphan in Owatonna December 20, 2011

The main building at the orphanage, built in 1886, housed offices, a reception room, chapel/auditorium, boys' cottage, living quarters for employees, a sewing room, attic and linen storage. This main portion today serves as the Owatonna city administration building.

THE TOWERING BRICK building with the enchanting turret represents no fairy tale. Not at all.

Within the confines of this place and the outlying cottages, some 12,000 – 15,000 children spent their formative childhood and teenage years institutionalized in the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. They were the orphaned, the abused, the abandoned, the unwanted.

The "State School Kids" memorial stands in front of the main building and was dedicated in 1993.

Information in a brochure I picked up on a recent visit to this 1886- 1945 orphanage in Owatonna reads:

Such children became wards of the state and, in most instances, all parental rights were cancelled. Parents did not always realize they were relinquishing all rights to their children when they signed the State School commitment papers. Some parents returned to try to regain custody of their children and were refused.

Can you imagine?

Residents of Cottage 11, which housed boys ages 6 - 13, pose for a photo now on exhibit at the museum.

While some children adjusted to living within the strict regiment and rules of the school, many did not. You will hear and read their tragic memories when you visit the orphanage museum. Be forewarned: These stories are difficult to hear.

A room in cottage 11 features the photos and memories of the boys who lived there.

Cottage 11 residents

The boys remember scrubbing floors throughout the cottage, including in the bathroom..

Beds were packed tight into sparse bedrooms in the cottage.

I’ve read several books written by former “state schoolers,” as they were called. Harvey Ronglien, who was the motivator behind the museum and the orphan’s memorial, wrote A Boy from C11, Case #9164, A Memoir. Peter Razor wrote While the Locust Slept, winner of a Minnesota Book Award. I read both books, as well as Crackers & Milk by Arlene Nelson, many years ago and still can’t shake the haunting memories of neglect and abuse and struggle.

Particularly troubling are the reports of abusive, neglectful and unloving matrons. Equally disturbing are the stories of children who were indentured to farm families and then treated like slaves.

Each boy was assigned to a chair in the basement and could not leave the Cottage 11 basement without permission. This was a method used to keep order and control over the children.

Within the confines of the basement, the boys played with marbles, puzzles, checkers and other toys.

A sign on a stairway landing tells visitors about the boys' dreams of escaping via rail and of their admiration for hobos. Some boys did hop trains and ran away.

Children were educated through the eighth grade, with some selected during the early years to attend Owatonna High School. In later years, all students were allowed to attend high school.

If you’ve never visited the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum, I’d encourage you to do so.

This exists as part of our state’s history. We need to know and understand life here.

Considering the thousands of children who lived in the orphanage during its 60-year span, I expect many Minnesotans are still carrying the emotional scars whether directly or indirectly passed through the generations.

IF YOU LIVED in the orphanage or have a family member who did, I’d like to hear from you. What’s your story? Good or bad.

The feet of the children in the memorial statue on the orphanage grounds.

CLICK HERE to read a previous blog post I published about Christmas in the orphanage.

© Copyright 2011 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


Beyond just a holiday art exhibit at the former Owatonna orphanage December 15, 2011

A door into the Owatonna Arts Center in southern Minnesota.

BEHIND THE BACK BLUE DOOR of the Owatonna Arts Center, housed in a former orphanage, past the guardian nutcracker, up the stairs and just to your left, you’ll discover a sprinkling of holiday magic and realism in “The Story Books of Christmas” exhibit.

As OAC Art Director Silvan Durben tells me, the exhibit doesn’t specifically emphasize Christmas books—although two are holiday-themed—but rather impresses the sharing of a storybook with a child and the warm memories that evokes.

You’ll experience that bonding over books in a rotating display of Mother Goose tales crafted onto cardboard and placed next to a Christmas tree embraced by teddy bears tucked among branches.

Who among us doesn’t remember with fondness the recitation of nursery rhymes?

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.

Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one. The mouse ran down. Hickory, dickory, dock.

Or the story of the “Old Man in the Moon?”

It was not lost on me, though, that the orphaned children who once tread these floors did not experience the closeness of clutching a teddy bear or cuddling on a lap while listening to nursery rhymes as they drifted into sleep.

A rotating exhibit of several Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

A close-up of art in the Hickory, dickory, dock rhyme.

Many dreamed of escaping—and some did via rail—the drudgery and abuse at the former Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children.

That reality struck me as I viewed an over-sized silver jingle bell and the word “BELIEVE” punched into an equally-large golden ticket at The Polar Express display. In that children’s picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, a young boy boards a train to the North Pole as the story unfolds to reveal the magic of Christmas.

The large, magical silver bell in The Polar Express display.

Although I did not ask, I wonder if the creators of “The Story Books of Christmas” considered the double-meaning of selecting The Polar Express to highlight in this place where so many children wished for a ticket out.

I found the selection fitting, touching and sad. And a wee bit hopeful.

FYI: “The Story Books of Christmas” exhibit runs through December 29 at the OAC, 435 Garden View Lane. OAC hours are from1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday, closed Mondays. The OAC will also be closed December 23 – 26.

The display highlighting the book, Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.

CHECK BACK for another blog post from the art center and for a photographic tour of Cottage 11, once home to orphaned boys.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling