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.
"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original prison complex included two shop buildings, but with the exception of twine, it's unclear what products were originally made in them.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.
A 1937 account pointed out "the inmates employed (in machinery manufacture) receive a training in trades such as moulders, core makers, wood workers, machinists, painters etc., that will enable them, when released, to find employment as skilled artisans in other industries."
Minnesota authorities believed they had "solved the convict labor problem on a more broad-gauged and humanitarian basis … than any other state in the Union." The binder twine and selected farm implements made by inmates weren't manufactured elsewhere in the state, thus avoiding direct competition with local laborers and for-profit manufacturers. It's not recorded how International Harvester felt about the arrangement, as prison products were in direct competition with the binders, mowers and twine made by IH in nearby Chicago.
The binders, hay rakes, loaders and mowers, cultivators, binder twine and rope were said to be "equal to the best on the market, (and) in great demand," and were sold through a statewide network of dealers to Minnesota farmers.
The twine factory at the new prison was a 360-by-86-feet, three-story masonry building with 500 spindles and related machinery. The raw sisal and Manila hemp fiber was delivered to the prison by rail in 400-pound bales. The bales were opened and kinks shaken out of the long strands by hand before being sent through a series of breakers. These machines combed, straightened, softened and oiled the fibers ahead of the spinners. The spinners twisted fiber into twine and wound it on large spools. The spools then went to the balling machines where finished 8-pound balls of binder twine were made. In 1937, approximately 600 prisoners made some 25,000,000 pounds of twine.
The main farm machinery factory building, which housed the machine and woodworking shops and the assembly department, was the same size as the twine factory. A separate foundry could turn out 20 tons of gray iron castings each day. There was a blacksmith shop and a storage building for steel. The lumberyard and two storage warehouses for finished products were outside the prison walls. In 1937, the maximum annual output of the farm machinery plant was said to be 10,000 machines.
Minnesota implements, rope and twine were apparently popular. A 1937 prison handbook notes: "The prison industries have practically reached their maximum capacity, doing an annual business of over $3,000,000. The profits to Jan. 1, 1937, amounted to over $4,000,000." It's unclear what time period this total profit figure covered.
By the 1950s, the machinery line included a PTO-driven grain binder, a tractor semi-mounted mower, a tractor side-delivery rake, a hay loader and 2-wheeled and 4-wheeled manure spreaders. Baler twine was by then the main cordage product, although binder twine was still being produced.
The twine factory was closed in 1970, due to waning profitability and because it no longer "(provided) marketable vocational training for inmates."
MINNCOR, a new company integrating and centralizing administration and sales functions of all Minnesota prison industries, was formed in 1994. The only farm equipment still being manufactured at the time were wagons and gravity boxes and those were discontinued in 2006, again because of profitability issues.
Today, the inmates of Minnesota's prisons make furniture, custodial and correctional products and some transportation items, and provide printing, reupholstering, sewing and laundry services.
Like many other once-proud names in farm implements, Minnesota is now just a memory. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org