Using Owatonna State Public School Records

View of building and grounds, Owatonna State School, ca. 1890. Location no. MS7.9 OW7.2 p16Minnesota's State Public School in Owatonna (OSPS) created records and files that have value to genealogists, local historians, scholars, and other researchers. This page describes the types of records from this institution that are available in the Minnesota Historical Society's Library and how to access them.

Brief History
The State Public School was established by the Minnesota legislature in 1885 as a public institution for dependent and neglected children between the ages of 3 and 14 (Laws 1885 c146). Although not intended to include infants, the State Public School did admit children younger than 3 under exceptional circumstances. Its goals were to educate the students under its jurisdiction, to find adoptive families for them, and to enable the students to be self-supporting upon discharge. Essentially, the school functioned as the state's public orphanage and adoption agency. Management of the school was vested in a three-member board until 1917 when the facility became subject to the State Board of Control, which was superseded in 1939 by the Division of Public Institutions, Department of Social Security.

A site selection committee oversaw construction of facilities in Owatonna in Steele County. The facility received its first students in 1886. The Board of County Commissioners in the children's county of residence committed children to the jurisdiction of the school after an investigation by the judge of the Probate Court. After 1917, such investigations were conducted by the Juvenile Court, if the county had a separate Juvenile Court.

Education at the school stressed moral training, religious instruction, and manual training, such as cooking and sewing for girls and farming and woodworking for boys. Occasionally, older students took high school classes at the Owatonna High School.

In addition to finding adoptive homes for children, until 1936 the school practiced indentured placement (frequently termed placing out), whereby children were placed in homes (often farms) on contract to do work or to learn a trade in exchange for a payment to the state. Children who were not adopted or placed out were discharged when they became self-supporting, reached the age of majority (usually 18 for girls and 21 for boys), or when their parents were able again to care for them. In the twentieth century, the resident population of the school fluctuated between 200 and 400. More than 10,600 individuals were committed to the school during its history.

By 1945 state public welfare officials believed that early foster or adoptive placement was preferable to institutionalization and admissions ceased. In 1947 the State Public School was officially abolished and all its lands, buildings, property, and funds were transferred to the newly established Owatonna State School, which provided academic and vocational training for the mentally retarded.

The Minnesota Historical Society Library contains hundreds of boxes of records documenting the administration and philosophy of the school and the children that were committed to it. Access to many of these records is restricted; see Access and Research Use Tips.

Records of the Residents/Students

*Case Files
*Index to Residents' Records
History of Children
Admissions Correspondence
Application Record
Placement Record
Placement Record by County
Record of Children
Record of Children Received
Statistical Record [History of Children]
Daily Movement of Population Records
Photographs of Students

Administrative Records of the School

Architectural Drawings
Buildings and Improvements Records
Cemetery Plat
Superintendent's Correspondence; Reports; Subject Files
Financial Journal and Ledger
Minutes of the Board of Control and Board of Managers
Store Records

*Primary Records of the Residents/Students:

Case Files, 1886-1945 [(210 boxes): A case file was maintained on each child committed to the jurisdiction of the Owatonna State Public School. The case file for an individual may contain documents surrounding the admission of the child, including substantial data about his/her family history, reasons for placement, and medical conditions. It also may include records of the student's academic progress at the institution, contracts and agreements for the placing out of the individual with families, adoption papers, and data on medical services provided to the child. Photographs, letters to or from family members, baptismal certificates, and other records documenting the child's life at the facility also may be found. Follow-up reports from state investigation agents into the placement or adoptive families are frequently present. Some files contain correspondence from long after the child was discharged, either relating the child's future work and life or from family members searching for the whereabouts of the student. Death notices or certificates for children who died while under the facility's jurisdiction also may be found.

Although the case file will theoretically include most of the data about an individual, researchers must be aware of several issues with the case files. First, the MHS does not contain such files for every individual committed to the school. Many have not survived the years before the records were transferred to MHS custody. Some were lost, transferred to other agencies, or suffered from inadequate storage. Secondly, even when a case file is present it may not contain all the normal documents, especially if more than one family member was admitted at the same time. Thirdly, some children were committed for whom virtually no information was obtainable; therefore, those case files will contain less data.

The case files are arranged in numerical order by the chronologically-assigned number given to each child at the time of admission. The case number can be determined by an alphabetical card index. Each card gives the name and case file number, date of admission, county of residence, date and place of birth, parents' names and residence, name(s) of sibling(s), date of placement and with whom, date adopted, date discharged (attained majority, returned to parents, returned to county jurisdiction, or died at institution). Researchers cannot search the card index to the case files; but the MHS librarians will search for a particular card for a researcher.

Additional Records of the Residents/Students
The Minnesota Historical Society holds numerous series of specialized records that contain information on students at the OSPS. Theoretically all, or most, of these data are duplicated in the case file for the student. If a researcher wishes a thorough search for all possible relevant data, or if a case file is incomplete or missing, these records should be searched. Expanded descriptions of these series are available through the links below and in the Society's Library.

History of children, 1886-1922 (11 volumes): Covering case numbers 1 - 6,822, these records contain a one or two page narrative history of each child, his/her background, circumstances of admission to the school, activities while at the school, and follow-up activities after departure from the school. These records are in oversize volumes and certain parts of certain volumes may not be able to be photocopied.

Admissions correspondence, 1890-1932 (3 boxes): Includes Superintendent's correspondence with county officials and members of the public regarding admission procedures, vacancies, and the admission of specific children.

Application record, 1906-1949 (3 volumes): Includes applicant's name, date, post office of applicant, county, action taken, gender, and age of child. These volumes include children whose applications for admission were not approved.

Placement record, 1887-1942 (4 volumes): Includes date of placement, case file number, indenture or placement number, child's name, guardian's name, post office, county and remarks for students who were placed with foster parents. Some of these placements eventually ended as adoptions.

Placement record by county, 1887-1943 (4 volumes): Includes date of placement, placement number, case file number, child's name, name and residence of guardian, dates of oversight visits, and remarks. These volumes are arranged by county of placement.

Record of children, 1887-1966 (3 volumes): Includes record of children's release from school's custody, categorized by type of release: became of age, restored to parents, self supporting, adopted, married, returned to county, or died. The later dates include projected dates of release from state guardianship, which in effect may not have been actualized.

Record of children received, 1886-1938 (1 volume): Includes child's name, date of admission, case file number, county from which committed, nativity, whether or not the child was an orphan or half-orphan, whether or not the child was from a "County house," age of child, and occasionally whether or not the parents were intemperate, criminal, or if they deserted the child.

Statistical record [history of children], 1891-1922 (6 volumes): Includes information on children, their parents, their family situation, and a record of placements. These volumes parallel the "History of Children" volumes described above, but may contain additional information.

Daily movement of population records, 1896-1954 (5 volumes): Daily and monthly statistics on children taken into and leaving the school, with names of those received, discharged, married, or adopted.

Photographs of students, ca. 1890-1918 (27 folders): Photographs of children corresponding to case file nos. 1 - 5,866 and listed under each letter of the alphabet. Photographs do not exist for most children for these years.

Administrative Records of the School
The following series contain information about the physical facilities and operation of the school. Names of students may or may not be found in these series. Expanded descriptions of these series are available through the links below and in the Society's Library.

Architectural drawings, 1931-1935 (11 items). Includes specifications and blueprints for two cottages, linen drawings of floor plans of the "old school building," and pencil drawings of a kitchen and toilet.

Buildings and improvements records, 1886-1928 (2 boxes): Includes correspondence, bids, contracts, specifications, blueprints, bills of materials and labor, payment authorizations, and miscellaneous related material documenting the construction, furnishing, and equipping of buildings and of various additions and improvements.

Cemetery plat, undated, 1957 (1 folder). Includes plat, list of plot numbers and names, and related correspondence.

Correspondence, speeches, and writings of Superintendent Galen A. Merrill, 1886-1933 (5 folders). Includes correspondence to and from Merrill, the first superintendent of the OSPS and who served for over 40 years, anniversary programs, speeches and writings.

Correspondence with the State Board of Health, 1895-1945 (26 folders): Includes correspondence and incidence reports on communicable diseases, tuberculosis report forms, instructions for the prevention and control of communicable diseases, and general health matters.

Financial journal and ledger, 1901-1906 (2 volumes): Financial records itemizing appropriations and summarizing expenses.

Minutes of the Board of Control and the Board of Managers, 1885-1917 (4 volumes): Minutes, and typed transcripts thereof, focusing on construction and maintenance of the physical plant, school appropriations and finances, staffing, and placement and discharge of individual children.

Store records, 1902-1925 (7 volumes): Record of supplies purchased such as food, bed linens, clothing, etc.

Superintendent's correspondence, 1886-1934 (13 boxes): Correspondence of Superintendent Galen A. Merrill and his clerk, Emily M. Oberlin, pertaining to all aspects of school administration, including programs, personnel, supplies and equipment, placement and welfare of children, and contacts with other social welfare groups and institutions. The files include correspondence with parents, children, foster homes and adopting homes concerning commitment of children, inquiries about resident children, and reports on home visitations.

Superintendent's reports, 1886-1945 (9 folders): Annual, monthly, or other periodic reports of the superintendent to the State Board of Control or the school's board of commissioners summarizing admissions and placements of children, children's health and conduct, school attendance, library usage, school employees and salaries, recommendations for repairs and improvements, financial status, and home visitation activities.

Superintendent's subject files, 1885-1953 (3 boxes): Include correspondence, circulars, reports, notes, statistics, and other items relating to a variety of aspects of the school's administration.

Access and Research Use Tips

Most of the OSPS records less than 100 years old have restricted access. This means that researchers will need to contact the Library in advance of a visit to determine if a particular file or records series can be viewed. These restrictions are in accordance with Minnesota's public records laws and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. To request access, please completely fill in the Application and Use Agreement for Access to Restricted Records in the Minnesota State Archives form. If the individual is deceased, please attach proof of death (a photocopy of a death certificate, obituary, or death card is required). If the individual is currently alive, please include a letter signed by the individual granting permission to view the file. Staff of the library will review your application and return it to you.

The Minnesota Historical Society Library staff can give access only to guardianship case files and to adoption files that are over 100 years. If you are seeking access for a file for someone who was adopted, we will need a copy of a court order from a judge of the district court in the county in which the adoption was finalized. That court order should include permission for access to the OSPS file and specific permission to copy material from the file.

Research Use Tips
Research in the OSPS records can be difficult. Most indexes and records are filed under the name that the child had upon admission to the school. This name may have been changed legally upon an adoption or informally upon placement with a family. Remember that the names of many immigrants may have changed spellings during the decades, so that even if a researcher knows the appropriate name, it may have been spelled-or misspelled-differently in the OSPS records.

Although the OSPS was a major orphanage in Minnesota, it was by no means the only one. Many churches and other private charities maintained homes for orphaned or neglected children. Records of children placed through private agencies are not included in the Owatonna records.

When more than one sibling from a family was admitted at the same time, important family details may not have been transcribed in all the individual files. Researchers should check the files of all family members. Generally, the most information exists in the file of the oldest sibling admitted to the OSPS.

Case files for students who were still under state guardianship when the OSPS closed in 1945 may not be found in the MHS collections. A researcher may be able to locate extant files in the offices of the Minnesota Department of Human Sevices, Adoption Unit 444 Lafayette Rd., St. Paul, MN 55155.

The physical facilities of the OSPS are now owned by the city of Owatonna. A small school museum is maintained on the site. The Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum may have photographs or additional information on residents of the school.