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Continued: Records document Stillwater prison in 1914

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 10, 2014 - 2:00 PM

“It looks like everything they could buy locally they did,” Nau said.

Among the items purchased, according to the records the women uncovered:

A load of sawdust for $1 and one dozen garden rakes for $6.52. A “trip to vaccinate pigs” cost $2.50, and an order of 100 copies of Webster’s High School Dictionary for the prison school cost 78 cents per book in 1914. Receipts from five mortuaries showed the prison paid $25 apiece for burials.

Stillwater Hardware provided 100 sticks of dynamite for $17 and 200 feet of fuse for $1.50. The reason for the purchase was not explained, but another receipt showed $4,200 spent for a “new prison addition.”

Prisoners also could buy pocketknives from their prison wages — although presumably the warden soon saw the folly in providing them weapons.

Records were meticulously kept, sometimes in elegant handwriting, to track expenses ranging from security guard wages — about 20 cents an hour — to the going rate for lamp oil and electricity. In January 1912, before the old prison in downtown Stillwater was vacated, 950 watts of “electrical current” cost $28.50.

Other records showed what the prisoners ate: fresh produce, eggs, chicken, mutton, pork and fruit. Food ordered included ingredients for “political dinners,” such as oysters, and commodities such as flowers.

In the early days, the street fronting the prison was a social center, where guests were entertained in homes for the deputy warden, captains and lieutenants. The deputy warden’s residence was sold a few years ago and moved to private property. Only the warden’s house remains, but Warden Michelle Smith doesn’t live there. It is now used as an event and training center.

When the new prison opened in 1914, it was considered one of the most advanced penal institutions in the world. Prisoners helped build it, records show, at a wage of $1 a day, which was considered a financial windfall in those times. The prison, enclosing 20 acres, would eventually have more than 60 structures, including buildings inside the walls where inmates were taught industrial skills.

Still, it was considered a hard place, where a “silent system” supposedly forced prisoners to take stock of their crimes and repent. “Inmates were considered more of a commodity than people, and convict care was poor,” said Brent Peterson of the Washington County Historical Society.

“Before computers they had receipts for everything,” Harder said. “We got a glimpse of what Stillwater must have been like at the turn of the century to the 1930s.”

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037





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  • The A West cell house at Stillwater prison looked empty recently but the appearance was deceptive. Men, mostly lifers, were locked in their cells to free officers to participate in the 100th anniversary commemoration. Each of the four galleys has 64 cells, just as they were built in 1914.

  • Sue Nau, left, and Linda Harder collected purchase receipts, time sheets and other documents to display in the old warden’s house at Stillwater prison. They both retired as program directors from the prison.

  • Displays at Stillwater prison showed books modified to hide weapons and other contraband.

  • Prisoner offenses, 1914

    The new Stillwater prison in 1914 had a “silent system” that required convicts to reflect on their crimes and repent. The deputy warden penned infractions in a logbook. Among them:

    • “Humming in his cell”

    • “Laughing and fooling in line”

    • “Gazing at visitors”

    • “Leaving cell with coat unbuttoned”

    • “Chewing black pepper while visiting”

    • “Hissing at waiter”

    • “Trying to shirk band practice”

    • “Rapping on cell door with cup”

    • “Looking back on galley”

    • “Laying broken head on plate” (Did the deputy warden mean bread?)

    Source: Disciplinary records from 1914.

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