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Adoption Research: Owatonna State Public School

Brief History

The State Public School was established in 1885 as a public institution for dependent and neglected children between the ages of 3 and 14. 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was vested in a three-member board until 1917 when the facility became subject to the State Board of Control, which was superseded in 1939 by the Division of Public Institutions, Department of Social Security.

The facility received its first students in 1886. 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.

By 1945 state public welfare officials believed that early foster or adoptive placement was preferable to institutionalization and admissions ceased. In 1947 the school was officially abolished and it became the Owatonna State School, which provided academic and vocational training for the mentally disabled.

Records of Residents/Students

Note: These records include private information about individuals.  Records with private information are closed for 75 years from date of last entry in the record and occasionally 100 years due to sensitive and/or third-party data.  Adoption record restrictions may apply to these collections. 

Index to Residents' Records
Each card includes the following information: name and case file number of student, date of admission, county of residence, date and place of birth, parents’ names and residence, names of siblings, date placed and with whom, date adopted, date discharged (attained age of majority, returned to parents, returned to jurisdiction of county, died at institution).
MNHS call number: Ask at the reference desk for assistance. 

Case Files, 1886-1945
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 index. The case file for an individual may contain documents about admission, including substantial data about his/her family history, reasons for placement, and medical conditions. It also may include records of academic progress, 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.
MNHS call numberDigital Finding Aid

The case file is the best source of information on a student.  Theoretically all, or most, of the data in these collections are duplicated in the case file for the student. However, 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. 

History of Children
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.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Statistical Record 
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, but may contain additional information.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Placement Record
Date(s), record number, indenture or placement number, child’s name, guardian’s name, post office, county, and remarks (dates and nature of each change in child’s placement status).
MNHS call number: See library online catalog.

Placement Record by County
Information recorded: date of placement, placement number, record number, name of child, name and residence of guardian, record (dates) of oversight visits, and remarks (date and nature of change in child’s placement status, e.g., attained majority, returned to school, transferred, married, adopted, self-supporting, canceled, ran away).
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Record of Children
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.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Record of Children Received
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.
MNHS call number: 114.G.2.2F-2

Photographs of Students
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.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

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. Records with private information are closed for 75 years from date of last entry in the record and occasionally 100 years due to sensitive and/or third-party data.

Architectural Drawings, 1931-1935 
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.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Buildings and Improvements Records, 1886-1928
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.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Cemetery Plat, undated, 1957
Includes plat, list of plot numbers and names, and related correspondence.
MNHS call number: 113.A.3.1B

Correspondence, Speeches, and Writings of Superintendent Galen A. Merrill, 1886-1933 
Includes correspondence to and from Merrill, the first superintendent of the OSPS and who served for over 40 years, anniversary programs, speeches and writings.
MNHS call number: 109.F.15.8F

Superintendent's Correspondence, 1886-1934 
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.
MNHS call numberDigital Finding Aid

Superintendent's Reports, 1886-1945
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.
MNHS call number: 109.F.17.2F

Superintendent's Subject Files, 1885-1953 
Include correspondence, circulars, reports, notes, statistics, and other items relating to a variety of aspects of the school's administration.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Correspondence with the State Board of Health, 1895-1945 
Includes correspondence and incidence reports on communicable diseases, tuberculosis report forms, instructions for the prevention and control of communicable diseases, and general health matters.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Financial Journal and Ledger, 1901-1906
Financial records itemizing appropriations and summarizing expenses.
MNHS call number: 108.I.19.2F

Minutes of the Board of Control and the Board of Managers, 1885-1917
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.
MNHS call number: 109.F.16.7B

Store Records, 1902-1925
Record of supplies purchased such as food, bed linens, clothing, etc.
MNHS call number: See the library online catalog


With Wise and Benevolent Purpose: Poor Children and the State Public School at Owatonna, 1885-1915, by Priscilla Ferguson Clement. 
In Minnesota History49/1 (spring 1984), p. 2-13.
MNHS call number: Digital copy

The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children: A Historical Look at Minnesota’s Only State Orphanage- That Existed in Owatonna, Minnesota from 1886-1945, by Harvey Ronglien. 
Minnesota : s.n., 1996.
MNHS call number:  FOLIO HV883.M6 R66 1996

How do I obtain an OSPS record?

Visit the Library

Researchers can search for and locate materials which are not restricted on site, with assistance from Library staff if desired. Copy requests for non-restricted records may be placed for a fee. 

For more details on visiting the library, please see our Using the Library guide.


Order Online

The Minnesota Historical Society Library offers a variety of research services.

To order a record from the Owatonna State Public School, fill out the order form on the Owatonna State Public School page at our online store. Please include any and all information you have about the record you are looking for. Please email us at if you have any questions.

Note: These records include private information about individuals.  Records with private information are closed for 75 years from date of last entry in the record and occasionally 100 years due to sensitive and/or third-party data.  Adoption record restrictions may apply to these collections. 

Orphanage Record Links

MNHS Reference Staff

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