'The only I home I remember'
"One night when I was about 3 years old, staying in C-6, I awoke in the lap of the matron. She rocked me and caressed my back. I don’t know why she might have taken me from my bed, whether I was sick or maybe having a nightmare. All I remember is that she held me there, comforting me, until I slept. It stands alone in my memories of childhood. It was the only time I was ever held, and because of that, it remains one of the strangest and happiest moments of my early life."
Peter Razor wrote this message at the beginning of Chapter 6 in his autobiography, "While the Locust Slept."
The book is a memoir from his years as an indentured child. When he was 17 months old, he was placed in the nursery at the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna. Abandoned by his parents, Razor was a ward of the state.
When I was in public school, we called the indentured children foster kids. There were some in my class from time to time. They were boys mostly, and they worked on dairy farms in the area. I remember they missed a lot of school.
I recently visited the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna. The campus and the buildings made me feel as if I were approaching a college campus.
From 1886 to 1945, the orphanage served as a temporary home for more than 10,000 children. The normal enrollment at one time averaged 500 children from infancy to 18 years of age. The doors to the orphanage closed in 1945, when Minnesota realized dependent and neglected children were better served by adoption or placement into foster homes.
From 1945 to 1970, the orphanage was phased out and used to provide educational and vocational programs for the "educable mentally disabled," according to the orphanage museum Web site.
The school campus was unused from 1970 through 1974, until the city of Owatonna petitioned Minnesota Department of Education to buy 74 acres of the campus. Owatonna named its acquisition, West Hills, and continues to use it to this day for various purposes, including to house the orphanage museum.
The Owatonna Arts Center is also inside the building. The day I visited, it was being painted in preparation for an upcoming fundraiser, German Brewfest, on April 23.
City administration offices are also located in the building as well as in other buildings on the campus used by the city.
Former school facilities on the campus are still in use by Owatonna residents and guests. There is a gym, a large pool for older children and a wading pool for smaller children that are maintained for public use.
Stepping into the main building, I found a brochure that explains the history of the state school, as well as a printed guide to help find the different restored parts of the original school complex, including the cottages that the children used to live in.
The orphanage cemetery is located on the grounds. Some families did take their children there for personal burial. Concrete markers with the child's orphanage number were sometimes all that marked the burial plot. Through efforts of local individuals, families, groups, clubs, former state school residents and their families and friends, markers with the children’s names have been placed on their graves.
In the corner of the cemetery, there's a bronze statue dedicated to the children: "To the children who rest here, may the love you lacked in life now be your reward in Heaven. You are remembered."
The boy from C-11
Harvey Ronglien, author of "Boy from C-11 Case No. 9164, A Memoir," is a host and tour guide at the orphanage museum. He was a ward of the state of Minnesota from 1932 to 1943.
"It was the only home I remember," he said about the orphanage.
Before arriving at the school museum, I read his book. When I walked through the museum and listened to Ronglien, I felt I had visited before — through his life story.
Ronglien and his wife, Maxine, spearheaded the creation of the museum and restoration of one of the buildings on campus.
When Ronglien was a young boy, his mother became very ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalized for a long time at the tuberculosis sanatorium at Walker in northern Minnesota. After his father vandalized a country school in nearby Swift County, authorities removed the children from their home.
It was 1932 and the country was in the depths of depression. Ronglien’s younger sister was adopted or taken in by a neighboring family. The older brothers and sisters went to live with people in Swift County. Ronglien and his brother, Oscar, were taken to the home in Owatonna. They were 4 and 5 years old, respectively — not old enough to earn their keep.
"This is the only home I really ever knew," Ronglien said as we walked through the cottage that has been returned to what it looked like when he was there. He showed us the room where he at one time slept. We went down to the basement were the boys would play after supper and before bed.
I left the area with a fresh perspective on the life I have experienced. I look forward to returning and learning more about Minnesota’s only state orphanage.
I do recommend reading Ronglien's story before visiting, however. The words come alive for you as you visit the home. The book can be found in book stores and at the public library.
Ronglien and his wife volunteer daily at the museum. Group tours can be arranged by contacting them at (507) 451-2149, or e-mailing to email@example.com. Tours may also be booked through the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and Tourism by calling (507) 451-7970 or e-mailing to firstname.lastname@example.org.