They were called the “State Schoolers” and they lived in a city on the hill. “For some it was a circle of hell; for others, a safe haven.”

In 1885 the Minnesota State Legislature passed a bill establishing the Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children. In short, they established an orphanage.

The Orphanage opened in Owatonna, Minnesota in 1886 and during the ensuing 59 years 10,635 children called it home. By 1937 the north and south wing of the main building were added, 16 cottages were built and the original 160 acres grew to 329 acres.

Today it is the only on-site orphanage museum in the United States





There are really no words to describe the grandeur of the main building which once served as living quarters for small boys and employees as well as housing dining rooms, a library, chapel, and “industrial departments”.

Today the Owatonna Arts Center is located in the main building and the reception area and dining halls have taken on a new identity as the Performing Arts Hall.  (I had the pleasure of attending my grandchildren’s piano recital in this hall.)

Art promoters in Owatonna took it even further by turning forgotten rooms into rooms where community members could visually and physically experience the arts.

The Owatonna City Offices are located in the main building and the primary museum is located in the U-shaped hall in the administration building.  Here is where the real story of the orphanage is depicted through artifacts, pictures and written words of the “State Schoolers” and others.  While some children had a good experience there were others who did not fare so well.



JoAnn Peterson of St. James, MN donated this dress to the museum in 1996 – 57 years after leaving the school.






At any given time over 500 children lived in the Orphanage.  25 to 30 children lived in each cottage and came together for meals and they worked, went to school, played and prayed together.  They rose as early as 5 AM and went to bed at 7:30.  They worked hard.  This was a self-sustaining institution.  There was a hospital, nursery, greenhouses, gymnasium, laundry and a cobbler, carpenter, barber and butcher.  And most important 287 acres of farmland which provided all of their produce in addition to feed for the livestock.  All of the children had a job to do.

The Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum was founded to “Remember the Children.”  That included those who died there.  198 children are laid to rest in the cemetery.

Tombstones marked the graves of the first 47 children who died and then things changed and the 151 who died later had no tombstone. Their grave was marked with a stone slab with their identification number engraved on it. How incredibly sad to have lived and died and remembered as a number. No name, no date.  State records indicate that between 1886 and 1997, almost 13,000 Minnesotans living in State Institutions were buried simply by a number.

Enter Gerald Bud Blekeberg… Born and raised in Decorah Iowa, Gerald served in the Army and attended Mankato State College. He worked as a carpenter most of his life and migrated to Owatonna. He volunteered at the State School and his passion was seeing that all children had a cross marker with their name on it.

The boardwalk marking the cinder path to the cemetery is comprised of boards on which names of the “State Schoolers” are engraved.  The Third Annual Lighting the Path event will be held Saturday, September 12, 2015.  This is a fundraiser for The Children Remembered Legacy Trust and used for renovation and restoration.  You will notice in the pictures below that the wooden boards are wearing down due to the elements.  They are working on replacing these boards to preserve the boardwalk and the history recorded on the boards.

Current major restorations include the root cellar

And Cottage 11.  You will want to tour Cottage 11.

Cottage 11 was built in 1923 and about 35 boys ranging in age from 6 – 12 lived there. It has been fully restored to its 1923 condition including the original terrazzo flooring, bathroom fixtures and woodwork.   You will also find the museum gift shop in Cottage 11.

A peek into the visitors’ sign-in book revealed comments that kind of tore at my heart.  Comments from people who had visited the museum the day I was there:  “Thank you, my dad lived here.”  “So happy to finally visit.  My grandmother lived here”  How special the visit had to  be for them.

They say the main building is haunted by the children who once lived there. I don’t know that I’m a believer, but I do know that as I left the museum I was haunted by the knowledge that over 10,000 children never experienced the love of a mother and father, never really knew how special they were because there was no one who had the time to tell them, and that 151 were buried with only a number to identify them.  That is what haunts me.  I also left feeling grateful for the people who cared enough to preserve this bit of history and help all of us “Remember the Children.”

I could fill volumes with what I saw and heard on my visit to the Minnesota State Orphanage Museum.  I really urge you to add this to your trip list.  In my opinion it may just be one of the most important “Little Trips” you will ever take.  They have self-guided audio tours and guided tours.

For more information check out their newsletter.  It is really interesting and very well put together.   The Radiator Brush

I plan on attending this year’s Annual Lighting of the Path.  I hope to see you there.



  1. This is an amazing story, Heidi. I am going to BLOG this one, also. We would never know about all of the fantastic places in this country unless there were people like you to tell us about them. Coppy

  2. Heidi, this is a wonderful story! Amazing from all sides. I am putting it on the WHAG BLOG for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the artists. Coppy

  3. Pingback: THE CITY ON THE HILL… CIRCLE OF HELL OR SAFE HAVEN? « Wooden Horse Arts Guild

  4. I was here as a toddler. I was one of the lucky ones. I was adopted.

    • It is an amazing place and I am glad that so many who lived there were adopted. I would love to hear from those who were not so lucky and lived there through their teen years. I’m sure for some it was a safe haven and others — not so much.

  5. Thanks for this, Heidi. My father and aunt both spent some time at the school, and we visited the site two years ago. My fathers picture is posted inside the entrance with the boxing articles…

  6. My dad worked here too. I often go there and look at the graves.
    So sad. I remember dad telling us about some of the children.

  7. Heidi,I lived in Owatonna 50 years before moving to Colorado and never new the history of the state school. We would never know about all of the fantastic places in this country unless there were people like you to tell us about them.

    • Jim, I’m glad you found my blog and enjoyed this post. If/when you return to Owatonna I hope you will visit the State School. It is truly an amazing place. I try to explore and report primarily on places that are not on the top 25 places you should add to your bucket list. There are so many places in the USA that are overlooked when we plan those little trips and vacations. Thank you for your comments.

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