Montana State Training School

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Montana State Training School
Established 1893
Construction Began 1903
Opened 1905
Current Status Active
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Boulder, MT
Architecture Style Italian Renaissance Revival
Alternate Names
  • Montana State School for the Feeble Minded
  • Boulder River School and Hospital
  • Montana Developmental Center
  • Intensive Behavior Center


Feeble-minded citizens of various ages were often relegated to the insane asylum at Warm Springs where, as Superintendent Thomas McAloney insisted in 1902, “the tendency of a feeble-minded child would be to become insane.” He went on to remind the legislature of their intent and motivations in 1893, explaining, “As citizens of our state these children are entitled to an education and the very fact that they are deficient in some of their mental qualities makes an education for them even more necessary than for those who are possessed of all their faculties.” The legislature responded in 1903, but with apparent parsimony, appropriating $30,000 of the $48,800 requested for the erection of a new building that neighbored the first.

The new school for the feeble-minded opened on November 10, 1905, housing 35 students while the deaf and blind continued to receive their education in the main building. Through the first thirty years of the twentieth century, each Montana superintendent informed the legislature in their appeals for greater funds and additional buildings that accepting students with such divergent disabilities meant much more was requested of them than of superintendents for institutions in other states.

Over the next fifty years, the lone “FM building” and its surrounding land developed into a complex that adapted, transformed, and expanded in accordance with national and state trends in the care of the mentally disabled. While admission of deaf and blind students remained fairly steady on the campus north of the river, from the moment of its establishment the feeble-minded department, south of the river, was inundated with applicants.

In 1917, over 275 children were on the waiting list for the feeble-minded school, and in just one year that figure ballooned to 330. The feeble-minded department was a school in name but as admission grew, leaders confronted more and more cases of children they believed capable at best of only minimal educational improvement. Such children required professional supervision far beyond the ten years the law allotted for student attendance. As early as 1906, superintendents began requesting a custodial department in which to house these cases. Custodial departments had already gained substantial prominence in similar institutions nationwide. Social and cultural chaos at the turn of the century had combined with a resurgence of heredity-based medical beliefs to instill a nationwide fear of the feeble-minded and their reproduction. This fear drove the establishment and rapid expansion of custodial departments while the optimism of the early Progressive Era inspired belief in the attainability and rapid effectiveness of total institutionalization. Supplementing the education of the feeble-minded with their life-long institutionalization, superintendents contended, held innumerable benefits for the institutions, the state, communities, and the feeble-minded themselves.

If released, “the boys, in many instances become criminals or the victims of the criminally inclined, and the girls outcasts in society and will result in bringing more of their kind into existence.”19 Superintendents took it upon themselves to protect the present and the future from the risks they believed feeble-minded citizens posed to the public, both as criminals and potential parents of criminals. Additionally, retaining feeble-minded adults offered a partial solution to the chronic budget shortfalls that plagued school leaders. Rather than sending graduates into the world where they might struggle to find employment and posed potential threats to others, superintendents proposed using those former students as workers. The Legislature approved the establishment of a Farm Colony where those unqualified for release could “be made useful and happy” as farm laborers, providing produce for the institution’s consumption and sale.20 The ranch quickly yielded a profit for the school but did not house many graduates; it could only take on those who were physically fit and capable of some degree of heavy labor.

The need for a truly custodial institution for the more severely impaired persisted until 1920 with the completion of a building that immediately began housing “a class of partially helpless and hopeless children…to make them comfortable, physically.” The Legislature ensured this department’s sustained use by passing a commitment law for the institution. Admission now required students’ commitment; parents surrendered their authority and their right to withdraw their child at any time: “No inmate may be removed from the institution, permanently or temporarily, except upon a written order from the Superintendent, or upon an order from any District Court of the State.”

By 1924, four new custodial “cottages” surrounded the school’s first building, then used for instructing an increasingly smaller proportion of inmates who qualified as academically educable. Making use of relatively recently developed intelligence testing, medical staff sorted the entire department population into grades to weed out those who could learn the “three R’s” from those better suited for industrial training, as well as those subject to no improvement at all. All who were able were expected to contribute in some way to the institution’s operation: farming, cooking, doing laundry, providing care to more severely disabled inmates, or making furniture and other goods for the school’s use.

The Montana State Training School figures prominently in Montana’s participation in the nationwide eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Custodial departments like the Training School’s were eugenic by design, for they prevented reproduction by means of segregating students from each other and from society at large. But nationally, the goal of total institutionalization began to give way even as the final touches were added to the school’s new custodial cottages. Optimism faded; the state could never provide institutional space for the sheer quantity of those who qualified as mentally handicapped by the era’s testing standards, and those outside of institutions were still believed to pose a risk to the nation’s health should they reproduce. The solution was eugenic sterilization, surgical intervention that eliminated a patient’s ability to reproduce. The eighteenth Legislative Assembly passed Montana’s sterilization law in 1923, creating a Board of Eugenics that met to review requests for sterilization.

The Training School’s chief surgeons performed sterilizations on at least sixty inmates by the year 1933, many of whom were released back to their homes following the operation while some others remained at the institution. In just one year, 1939, Superintendent Griffin reported the sterilization of thirty-four inmates. Although now regarded as a shameful chapter in Montana’s and the nation’s history, eugenic sterilization is nonetheless significant as one episode in the state’s relation to its mentally disabled population at the Montana State Training School. Compulsory eugenic sterilization ended in 1969 with the passage of a new Eugenic Sterilization law. It established protocol for voluntary sterilization, placing checks to ensure those who pursued it were fully capable of consent and understood the procedure.

After the deaf and blind departed, the school changed its name to simply The Montana State Training School, dropping the designation “for Feeble-minded and Backward Children.” The school expanded enrollment and its academic, industrial, and custodial programs, but because it received the entire north campus in 1937, leaders sought no new buildings until the 1950s, following Governor Bonner’s appointment of a Committee on Mental Health. The committee undertook investigations of the state’s various institutions, including the State Hospital at Warm Springs and the Training School at Boulder. In 1954 the committee reported the school’s enrollment of 550 patients and a waiting list of 236 while its legal capacity sat at 380. In that year, a new hospital was underway using an appropriated $436,000 from the 1951 legislature. The legislature also approved the construction of two dormitories, but these remained in the planning stage. The committee pushed for bonds to provide additional funds to both the State Training School and the State Hospital at Warm Springs. Both referenda passed, yielding the Training School $1.5 million toward the development and construction of the new dormitories and other improvements.

In 1963, the institution’s population reached 903 patients and the legislature transferred jurisdictional authority from the Board of Education to the newly created Department of Institutions. The year 1963 saw destructive change as well: on March 6, a fire tore through the upper two levels of the school’s main building on the south campus, which Westwell had dubbed Griffin Hall in 1949, naming it after the previous superintendent. No students were hurt in the fire, and the building’s damage prompted new construction projects. Initially, plans included razing and replacing the building; however building inspectors informed the special committee overseeing the project that Griffin Hall was repairable and should not be torn down.

In 1972, the nation’s attention turned to New York and its Willowbrook State School in response to Geraldo Rivera’s expose that revealed filthy conditions and utterly dehumanizing practices throughout the institution. Montana had its own Willowbrook experience in 1974 as a shocking number of accidental violent deaths plagued Boulder River School and Hospital. Officials attributed these deaths to poor conditions spurred by staff shortages, and indeed, both Willowbrook and Boulder River School and Hospital were extremely short-staffed due to a mix of funding issues and difficulty recruiting new employees for sustained periods of time. The incidents furthered a call for new methods of care for the mentally disabled.

Renamed the Montana Developmental Center (MDC) in 1985, the institution continued to shrink, abandoning the label “institution” as it became an increasingly stigmatized term. The year 1995 marked a consolidation of building use that located all of MDC’s operations on the north side of the Boulder River. As the decade concluded, Jefferson County acquired the buildings and surrounding land of the south campus. North of the river, the Montana Development Center still operates, serving approximately fifty patients. Many of those currently at the MDC “have a complex mixture of developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and behavioral problems.” Following sexual assault allegations toward and the subsequent conviction of an employee in 2010, MDC’s leadership was replaced. The new leaders immediately undertook a drastic redesign and began making changes as rapidly as possible in efforts to overcome the allegations and to ensure MDC operated as a short-term intensive treatment facility rather than as a custodial institution. Substantial debate surrounded the center in 2013 as state Senator Mary Caferro proposed a bill to require MDC’s closure by 2015. [1]