Owatonna State School

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Owatonna State School
Owatonna State School
Established 1885
Opened 1886
Closed 1970
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Owatonna, MN
Alternate Names
  • Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children
  • State Public School


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was vested in a three-member board until 1917 when the facility became subject to the State Board of Control, which was superseded in 1939 by the Division of Public Institutions, Department of Social Security.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 until it closed in 1970. Today the property is still owned & used by the city, including the cemetery. There is also a museum on site dedicated to the history of the facility.



There are 198 known children buried at the cemetery. It is accessible by the public and maintained by the city. List of names buried at the cemetery


Website for the museum