Minnesota Prisoners Once Built Farm Machinery

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: A program at a Stillwater Minn. prison allowed inmates to learn skills and earn money by building Minnesota farm equipment.

| April 2008

"Your new binder was made where?!?" If, during the first half of the 20th century, a farmer in Ohio, Pennsylvania or New York showed his neighbor the shiny new green-and-red grain binder he'd just bought in Minnesota, the incredulous neighbor may well have asked just that question. It wouldn't, however, have been such a source of astonishment in Minnesota, the eastern Dakotas, northern Iowa or western Wisconsin, where the Minnesota line of farm machinery and twine was common, and everyone knew the stuff was made at the state prison in Stillwater by convict labor.

In the early 1850s, when Minnesota was still a U.S. territory, Congress appropriated $20,000 to build a prison at Stillwater, a town on the west bank of the St. Croix River which, at that point, forms the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Minnesota became a state in 1858, and the Stillwater Territorial Prison became a state institution.

The original prison complex included two shop buildings, but with the exception of twine, it's unclear what products were originally made in them. In 1874, a law was passed allowing prisoners to earn income from their labor. A news blurb reported a record 1 million pounds of twine was produced in the state prison twine factory in 1892. During the late 1800s, the labor of many inmates was leased to various industries, including the Minnesota Thresher Co. of Stillwater.

The prisoners were kept busy, received valuable training and experience and even earned a little income, the article noted, which afforded "a proper incentive to strict application to duty and more and better results all the time." In addition, "the products of this labor (were) distributed for the benefit of the people of (Minnesota), and also for the benefit of the taxpayers thereof."

By the turn of the century, the old prison facilities were deemed inadequate. One account describes the cell blocks: "The windows were small and narrow and the light and air poor, thus endangering the health of the prisoners, sapping their energies unnecessarily and decreasing their manual efficiency." In other words, they couldn't work as long or as hard because of poor living conditions. In about 1907, construction began on a new prison approximately 2-1/2 miles south of the original site. The facility was completed in 1914 and was said to be "one of the best and most modern prisons in the United States, if not in the world."

In 1907, the legislature authorized the Stillwater prison to make grain binders, hay mowers and dump rakes in addition to twine. A 1909 bill prohibited all contract labor by inmates, and thereafter more emphasis was placed on the manufacture of farm machinery and binder twine. Hay loaders and cultivators were added in 1927. Eventually, side-delivery rakes and manure spreaders became part of the Minnesota line as well.