Yesterday, my family road tripped to Owatonna, MN and visited the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum which operated as a home for orphaned, neglected, and abandoned children from 1886-1945. As I mentioned last week, it has been declared to be among the top 5 most haunted locations in the state by a local paranormal investigating team; however, they have requested that no one perform any more investigations. Well…we’re not actually, technically paranormal investigators, and I figured the worst they could do was ask us to put away our Nooks and Smart phones running our Ghost Radar app. So despite my son’s continual inquiries of “Are you sure we won’t get arrested, Mom?” I drug my children to this former orphanage, armed them with cameras and instructed them to take lots of pictures
My parents even joined us on the trip. My mother was so excited about our excursion that she just had to tell our waiter that once we were done chowing down our brunch of pizza, pasta, scrambled eggs and waffles we would be going “ghost hunting” (I have to interject that this is exactly why I love brunch…when else to do you get to eat eggs Benedict and pizza in the same setting).
As we traveled up the driveway toward the front of the main building, I could imagine how intimidated a small child would feel as they were driven to this looming, dark structure that was suddenly their new home. Even as an adult, the immenseness of the stately building made me feel incredibly small.
We spent about an hour in the main building, where they’ve made a nice, all be it depressing, memorial to the 10,635 children who called the State School their home. The stories of abandonment and mistreatment were especially difficult to digest as my own kids wandered around looking at the black and white photos of so many beautiful children who spent their youth in this institution.
After we toured the museum on the main floor, we tried to go upstairs. Finding the doors to the stairway locked, my mother led us to an elevator. We reasoned that if they didn’t want us upstairs they would have locked that too (although I’m not sure you actually can lock an elevator, but whatever – it seemed logical at the time and well, my mom told me to do it). So we piled in, and up we went.
We found ourselves in the hallway of some very uninteresting government offices, face to face with an employee named Bev shampooing the carpets. As we tried to explain that we were “lost” and unsure where we were supposed to be, I put my hand on the elevator (holding the door). Apparently, this elevator lacks the safety mechanism which stops the door from closing on objects, such as people, and the door shut on my wrist (my hand inside the elevator – the rest of my body outside of it). I’m proud to say I managed not to cry or swear in front of my children as my mother, with strength unnatural for such a tiny woman, pried that door open and freed my bruised wrist before my bones were completely crushed. Poor Bev, who either felt sorry for our crew after witnessing the near amputation of my hand or simply in an effort to get us the heck out of there, offered to show us how to get to Cottage 11 (which has been restored and is one of the buildings where the children actually spent most of their time when not in school).
Although the cottage was locked and there was no one on staff that day, Bev was kind enough to let us in and waited patiently with a smile as we wandered around for a good half hour. Now, I’d like to point out that had my mother not forced us to try to sneak onto the second floor, we never would have run into Bev, and our trip to the State School would have been much less interesting. I’m not gonna say that sometimes it pays to break the rules just a little, but…well…it seemed to serve us well this time.
25-30 children lived in the cottage at one time. They slept 2 to a bed, shared one shower and one bathtub (which they were only permitted to use twice a week) and when not in school or sleeping spent most of their time in a dismal, concrete-floored basement. Each cottage had a matron who lived with them 24/7. According to the audio tour, the matron in Cottage 11 was a woman who showed very little affection and beat a boy so badly he thought he might die because he dared to take his tie off as he walked across the yard to school.
We did not capture any ghostly images in Cottage 11, but we all agreed that there was a of sense of overwhelming sadness that rested heavily upon us as we toured the building. The basement was especially dreary, and when we learned that this is where the children spent most of their time under the stern eye of an unaffectionate matron who would sooner beat them then hug them, it was difficult not to cry.
But even more heartbreaking was the cemetery where 198 of the 300+ children who died at the orphanage are buried (many of them without proper headstones – their graves had simply been marked with a number – until the community came together and gave each child a cross etched with their name). Causes of death on certificates for these children ranged from disease, to drowning, to exhaustion. Many of the younger children died from marasmus which today we would call, “failure to thrive for lack of love.” Someone had placed a stuffed animal or toy on each grave – a reminder of the simple treasures of childhood that these little ones had been deprived of in life.