Minnesota's first experiment in juvenile justice, the State Reform School, operated in St. Paul from 1868 to 1891. During that time, over 1250 inmates, almost all of them boys, were committed to the institution, mostly for petty crimes and "incorrigibility." The school moved to a new facility in Red Wing in 1891.
The Reform School, authorized by the Minnesota legislature in 1866, opened in 1868 to accomplish two goals: first, to keep boys (admitted no older than age sixteen) and girls (admitted no older than age fifteen) out of adult jails and prisons; and second, to provide education, shelter, and training for young people found guilty of crimes or neglected by incompetent parents.
The school began its operations in a single building on the open prairie just west of St. Paul, on a location later taken over by Concordia University. It operated there for twenty-three years. During that time over 1260 boys and girls passed through. The institution grew from a first-year class of thirty-nine to over three hundred inmates and from a single building to a complex of dormitories, workshops, and outbuildings.
The inmates led busy, regimented lives ruled by work, school, and religious instruction that started at six o'clock. They devoted four hours of every morning to work and four hours to school, prayer, and scripture. Afternoons followed the same routine. Work was considered essential. It was also necessary to keep the place going; the inmates cooked, did the laundry, made their own clothing, tended the animals, and worked the farm, which produced most of their food.
The school's superintendent was John G. Riheldaffer, aided by his wife, Catherine. Riheldaffer was a Presbyterian pastor and a founder of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Inmates got a decidedly Protestant religious education at the school, to the alarm of Minnesota Catholics. In 1874 the legislature forbade sectarian indoctrination in state institutions—a law that aimed squarely at Riheldaffer. He mostly ignored it.
The Riheldaffers devoted themselves to the school. They lived on the site with their children, supervised all activities, and worked 365 days a year, from 1868 into 1885. In the earliest days they and the inmates lived in the same house. They shared hardship. When the site's polluted water supply brought typhoid fever in 1874, four children died—three inmates and the Riheldaffers' daughter Helen. It took three more years of lobbying the legislature to get a new, deeper well.
The boys and girls sent to the school ranged in age from three (a single case) to sixteen. The typical inmate came in at age twelve, thirteen, or fourteen. Over half of the inmates came in for theft, often petty—as little as stealing a can of oysters or a handful of newspapers. Over a third came in for "incorrigibility," a term that covered a vast range of behavior from truancy to abusing animals and other children. Most of the "incorrigibles" were committed to the school by one or more parents; these adults asked the state to take their children off their hands.
The inmates typically stayed two or three years; they were usually released back to their families. Though the law provided that they might be kept to age twenty-one, that happened rarely. In most cases the superintendent decided when release should happen, though boys sometimes took matters into their own hands. The first of more than one hundred escape attempts occurred in 1870; more than sixty boys got away without recapture.
The school grew from thirty-nine inmates in 1868 to 162 in 1885. It also outgrew its St. Paul facility. In 1886 the legislature decided to move it. Red Wing won the statewide competition held to select a host city and a new school building opened there in mid-1891. Concordia College (later Concordia University) bought the west end of the St. Paul site in 1892. Central High School was built on the east end in 1912.
Minnesota Historical Society. Complete Reform School inmate roster, 1868–1891 (with annotations by Paul Nelson).
Nelson, Paul D. "Early Days of the State Reform School." Minnesota History 63, no. 4 (Winter 2012–2013): 132–143.
Quackenbush, Orville F. "The Development of the Correctional, Reformatory, and Penal Institutions of Minnesota: A Sociological Interpretation." Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1956.
In 1886 the state legislature creates a Relocation Commission charged with finding a new site for the growing school. Their effort culminates with the opening of the school's Red Wing facility in the summer of 1891.
In November St. Paul City Attorney Isaac V.D. Heard urges the city council to create a "house of refuge" for young offenders to keep them from adult jails and prisons.
The state legislature authorizes the creation of a state "house of refuge" on March 1.
The State Reform School opens with John G. Riheldaffer, a Presbyterian pastor, as its superintendent. The first inmate is an African American girl: Ellen James, age eleven.
With thirty-nine inmates admitted in the first year, the school is filled beyond capacity.
The school expands by opening a new dormitory on December 17.
An inmate escapes from the school in August-the first incident of its kind. One hundred more attempts follow over the years, at least sixty of them successful.
A new dormitory is built.
The "liberty of conscience" bill forbidding religious indoctrination in state institutions becomes law. It has little effect on Reform School practices.
Typhoid fever strikes the school, killing three inmates and one of John Riheldaffer's daughters. The cause is a polluted water supply. Riheldaffer asks the legislature for money for a new well.
The legislature appropriates money for a new well.
Riheldaffer resigns, effective July; J.W. Brown takes over as superintendent.
On March 7 the legislature authorizes construction of a new Reform School.
The move to the new Reform School in Red Wing is completed in November.