For Episode 65 of the podcast, Jenni and I looked at haunted Minnesota. Neither of us have visited Minnesota but it’s definitely on my bucket list. How can you not go to a state with the nickname, ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’?
On the podcast, I talked about haunted West Hills, located in Owatonna and formerly known as, The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children. How would you like to type that out every time a form asked for place of employment? I think I’ll call it West Hills in this post.
The school was originally set up as a residential and educational facility for wards of the state of Minnesota. It operated in this capacity from 1886 to 1945. Before the facility opened, neglected children went to county ‘poor farms’. The problem with this was that the children were mixed in with a population of adults struggling with problems, such as alcoholism. Many were also criminals. The only education the children received here was directing them to a life of crime. The state decided the wards of the state needed more appropriate role models.
The school was established to provide safe, transitional housing for the states orphaned, abandoned, and abused children. The intent was, of course, to help the youth of the state. Children were moved from at-risk situations into home-like settings where they would be with suitable families. That was the intent, but not always the results.
The school was set up in a cottage system. There were 16 cottages built to house 20-25 students per cottage. Each cottage had a fulltime live-in matron. In 1930, there were 500 children living in the 16 cottages. If my math is correct, that averages to more than 30 bodies in each cottage. I wouldn’t want to be that matron, even with the two other helpers that divided their time to help with the children. The babies stayed in a nursery located in a different area.
The school was located on 329 acres. It had its own power plant. There was electricity at the school before the city of Owatonna had electricity. The campus also had a greenhouse, an ice house (needed in the olden days), a cemetery, and a fully functioning farm. The wards were the primary work force at the farm.
The cemetery held the graves of 198 children. It seems like a lot for 60 years but the nation went through the 1918 Flu Pandemic and they didn’t have a Dr. Fauci to get the vaccination going. 3-5% of the world’s population died. This could certainly account for deaths at the school in Owatonna.
(photo by Southern Minn)
The problem I have with the cemetery is not the number of graves, but the fact that 151 of those graves were marked with the number of the child and not the name of the child buried. That seems wrong. Luckily, the community also felt this was wrong and they researched and found the names of the children and put up tombstones for each child. Go Owantonna.
During the 60 years of its existence, 10,635 children passed through the school. All of these children couldn’t be placed in suitable homes and, therefore, they suffered the effects of institutionalization.
The school closed in 1945 when adoption and foster care became a better choice than institutionalization. Next, the building complex became the Owatonna State School for children with developmental disabilities. The State School closed in 1970 and for the next four years, the buildings remained empty. Then, the city purchased the complex and renamed it West Hills. Nineteen buildings remained.
Part of the complex is now used to house the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum. The museum was founded ‘to remember the children’. For some it was a circle of hell and for others in was described as a safe haven. Many stories of abuse were told by past students. Corporal punishment was allowed until it became the home for the developmentally disabled. At that point, a ward’s complaints were taken seriously and the beatings stopped.
As you would imagine, the reported hauntings at West Hills mostly involve children. The museums and grounds are said to be haunted by former students who were abused by their caretakers.
Ghostly reports includes apparitions, disembodied voices, laughter and sobs, and cold spots. Objects, including books, are said to move on their own. Some visitors smell cigar smoke, so all the ghost may not be children.
Two of the hauntings are quite unusual. It is reported that the floors seem to move or warp. The other strange haunting involves phone calls placed from the empty buildings on the campus. These calls are to the police department and when investigated, the building where the call originated is unoccupied.
Classes are held in the buildings since the city purchase the site. One girl, taking an art class, told of her experience in the basement of a building. She described a creepy vibe in the basement. Shadows were seen walking in the dark corners of her classroom. The art student said she saw a silhouette glide in front of a window in the building. I, personally, might have considered dropping the class.
Of course, the cemetery is haunted. The ghosts of children are seen and heard in this area. One storyteller heard a child say, “Thank you”. Maybe the young spirit was thanking the community for the new tombstones.
Although most of the ghost are children, there are also some adult apparitions seen. Harvey Ronglien, a ward of the state at the school for eleven years, had plenty to say about the ghosts. He told stories of children singing and crying when none were around. Doors opened for no apparent reason. But Harvey also said some people glimpsed a shuffling older man in a brown suit.
If you haven’t visited Minnesota, the West Hills complex and museum might make a nice day trip. And if you’re really brave, maybe a night trip!
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I hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to hear more haunting stories from Minnesota, click the link above and listen to The Crooked Key Podcast Episode 65. Along with more about West Hills, Jenni tells the ghostly story of Nopeming Sanatorium. If you like the podcast, subscribe and our current episode will appear in your feed every Thursday.
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