Retirees spent months sifting through boxes to rescue and preserve 100 years of documented history.
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.
Linda Harder and Sue Nau had worked hard for this moment.
For an entire summer and then some, the two retirees from Stillwater prison had labored over thousands of boxes in a damp basement below the prison, rescuing historic documents from the ravages of time.
Now, as part of a program commemorating the prison’s 100th anniversary, the two were showing off their hard work to hundreds of visitors in the huge, remodeled house where past wardens once lived.
And they couldn’t have been more pleased.
“We’re just glad to see it come to this day and see everybody enjoy it,” Harder said.
Harder and Nau, “best friends,” both worked more than 30 years at Stillwater prison. They began in the clerical department — Harder in parole and Nau in records — before being promoted through a series of jobs, finishing a few years ago as program directors in charge of cell houses.
Two years ago they volunteered to sort musty records, many of them covered with pigeon and mouse droppings, in a quest to save Stillwater prison’s history. What they found told a story, receipt by receipt, of the early years of Minnesota’s oldest existing prison.
“It was like reading a novel,” Nau said of their exploration into thousands of business receipts, disciplinary reports and time sheets recovered from beneath the prison. “We spent an entire summer in a cellar, sorting.”
The purpose of the May 2 commemoration wasn’t to “revel” in the circumstances of fellow citizens incarcerated at the prison, said Commissioner Tom Roy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, but to honor officers and other workers who kept a small city running behind bars and high walls.
“So many times when people drive by this place they see this prison as an iconic structure,” he told about 300 people gathered outside the warden’s house across from the prison in Bayport. “It really is a place where so many disciplines go to work every day.”
The prison today, second only to St. Cloud prison in age, houses 1,600 men whose crimes require close custody. About a third of them have committed murder; most of the rest were convicted of violent felonies such as rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Structurally, the building is much like it was when it opened in 1914, with long units full of men living in cells fronted with bars nicked and pitted from a century of use.
It still lacks air conditioning — temperatures on hot summer days reach 100 degrees in the upper galleys where prisoners double-bunk because of overcrowding. Much of the architecture remains the same with decorative skylights, tall windows and a long wide hallway that connect cellblocks with the chapel, gym, dining hall and school.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it, that the place has functioned for 100 years nonstop?” Roy said.
Construction of the $1.3 million 1914 prison to replace the state’s first prison in downtown Stillwater — more than a century ago — was an ambitious effort that, as Harder and Nau found, required purchases of materials from hundreds of businesses.
Lumber came from Stillwater’s many sawmills, tons of brick and metal were hauled to the site to make high walls and secure cell houses. Hardware stores cashed in, too, as did grocery markets that fed both inmates and workers.
“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