Macalester College student Mackenzie O'Brien researched and wrote this essay on the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum in 2019. Macalester College staff and Preserve Minneapolis supervised Mackenzie's project collaboratively.
The Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum closed in 1929 and was demolished soon thereafter. Justice Page Middle School (originally Ramsey Junior High School) now occupies the site.
The Washburn Orphanage no longer stands, but it had a significant influence on the lives of hundreds of Minneapolis children. Cadwallader Washburn (1818-1882), a flour milling magnate, representative for Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, and Governor of Wisconsin, left $375,000 for the establishment for the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum in his will. He assigned control of the orphanage to his brother, William D. Washburn, who played an active role in shaping the institution for years to come. E. Townsend Mix, a well-established Milwaukee-based architect (he also designed the Metropolitan Building in downtown Minneapolis), was commissioned to build the Queen Anne-style orphanage at the corner of 50th and Nicollet. The site, then located outside Minneapolis city limits in Richfield, was chosen due to its large size and abundant trees, which the trustees hoped would be beneficial for the children.
When the orphanage opened in 1886, nine children, eight boys and one girl, were admitted. By 1895, the orphanage reached its peak population of 122 children. In 1907, in response to financial problems, the number of children allowed to be housed at the orphanage was limited to 100: 50 boys and 50 girls.
The trustees of the orphanage set out to abide by Cadwallader Washburn’s vision of making the orphanage a tranquil place for orphans. All staff members had to abide by a strict code of conduct that forbade them from using “unbecoming language” on the premises, scolding the children, or smoking cigarettes. The selection process for new staff members was very thorough and those who did not adhere to the orphanage’s standards were quickly terminated. The children were provided with fresh fruits and vegetables from a garden on the premises and milk from cows grazing on surrounding fields.
One ongoing struggle faced by the trustees during the early years was finding a way to consistently supply clean water to the orphanage. After William Washburn decided that connecting to the municipal water system was too expensive, various solutions were attempted, including wells and a private water system (see the Washburn Water Tower in this Tangletown tour). These solutions were far from perfect as evidenced by typhoid outbreaks, one of which infected 30 out of 100 children at the orphanage, killing one.
The children began their day at six a.m. with breakfast. Then they attended classes, had lunch at noon, and either did chores or had free time. After dinner, they were put to bed early in the evening. Sundays were largely dedicated to religious observance. The older boys and girls went to church on alternate weeks, where they often saw William Washburn with his grandchildren. Each week, Sunday School was an exciting time at the orphanage. From 1897 onward, each child was allowed to visit with friends and family for just 15-30 minutes once every three months after Sunday School. This restricted visitation schedule was intended to minimize disruptions to the children’s lives and wellbeing.
The orphanage closed in 1929, falling in line with a transition from institutional child care to foster home systems. The orphanage site was sold to the City of Minneapolis and became the site of Ramsey Junior High School (now known as Justice Page Middle School). However, the Washburn name lives on. From 1929 to 1949, the orphanage was succeeded by a foster home placement agency known as Washburn Home. In the mid-1940s and early 1950s, the foster agency began to transition into a children’s mental health clinic; it is now known as the Washburn Center for Children.