Prison Industries Have Long History in Minnesota

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Photo Courtesy Bill Vossler
State prison at Stillwater.

The Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater, completed in 1853, was initially a modest operation. According to an account in volume 37, issue 4 of Minnesota History, the structure housed “a three-story prison house with six cells and two dungeons for solitary confinement, a workshop and an office.”

In 1859, John B. Stevens, Stillwater, leased the prison workshop from the state for five years for $100 a year. He paid each prisoner 75 cents a day to make shingles and blinds. That contract remained in place for the next 55 years.

By the end of the 1860s, Seymour, Sabin & Co. took over, manufacturing a variety of wood products. Despite opposition to company procedures and the loss of revenues due to the state, Seymour, Sabin & Co. was able to hold on to the contract. Starting in 1876, Seymour began building Minnesota Chief threshing machines and, according to Minnesota History, “became the world’s largest manufacturer of such machines.” The company also had 100 civilian workers outside the prison walls.

By 1890, seeking to maximize potential profits, the state began to play a larger role in management of the prison industries and launched a binder twine operation (for more on binder twine production, see Binder Twine an Early Necessity for Harvesting and Binder Twine Prices Affect Farm Implement Dealers). By 1937, 600 prisoners were engaged in twine production. Over time, the state-owned operation expanded to include hay rakes, hay loaders, sickle mowers, manure spreaders, gravity boxes, barge wagons and flare box wagons.

MINNCOR (the Minnesota Department of Corrections industry program) was created in 1994 after other farm equipment manufacturers threatened legal action, claiming unfair competition. Because prisoners did not have to be paid union wages, Minnesota prison industries equipment could be sold at a much lower price. MINNCOR ceased production of agricultural wagons and gravity boxes in 2006. The oldest pieces manufactured in Minnesota prisons remain difficult to find.

“You won’t see the old hay rakes, hay loaders or horse mowers at auction,” collector Kirk Affeldt says. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across any of that older pre-1950s stuff at auction. Occasionally you’ll see a manure spreader up for sale, but more frequently you’ll see gravity boxes. It would be interesting to sit down with one of the old dealers and find out what sold the most.” FC

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