Montana August 10, 2016
This Orphanage In Montana Has A Dark History That Will Never Be Forgotten
The 1890s were tough in Montana. The decline of the mining boom brought a waning economy and greater poverty to the area. That’s when the Montana Children’s Center in Twin Bridges was established as a way of helping the local economy and instigating some social justice reform. And for the most part, it was a highly successful institution that taught children excellent life skills and how to be proficient as adults.
But the Montana Children’s Center has a dark side to its history as well. It would be impossible to have an institution full of orphans without there being a little sadness. Talking with adults who were raised there as children has led to stories of depression, loneliness and harsh discipline.
Children were delivered to the orphanage for a variety of reasons. Some had lost their parents, while others sadly had parents who simply could no longer care for them. If a mother had been widowed and had no income or families just had too many little mouths to feed, sometimes they had no choice but to turn over their children in hopes that they’d receive a better life.
In a lot of ways, the orphanage was a wonderful place. It was a self-sustaining community where residents were taught life skills. It had a swimming pool, an elementary school, livestock, dairy cows and even its own hospital. There was space for children to play and run free.
But as we now know, children need close adult supervision and one-on-one attention to thrive. Discipline at the orphanage could be very harsh. In a 1995 Seattle Times article, two men detailed their experiences growing up there. They recalled bed-wetters being whipped every morning—some children would even wake up at 5 AM to dry their bed sheets on the radiator before the 6 AM inspection. Some children were punished by being hung on coat hooks or locked in dark cloak rooms. The orphanage staff ran a tight ship and children were expected to behave.
Other stories are more heartbreaking. One man kept a journal of his time at the orphanage growing up, noting whenever his mother, who couldn’t care for him, would visit him. She visited once a year, always hoping she’d be able to take him home in the future. Another former resident recalled finding out as an adult that the staff had intercepted a letter from his mother. She’d promised to take him home, and they felt it would be too upsetting for a child to read that. She couldn’t ever keep her promise, so it was probably for the best.
The population at the orphanage boomed during the Great Depression. As many as 400 children lived there during that time. The numbers dwindled after that, especially as our society began to learn more about institutionalized living. The orphanage officially closed in 1976.
Since its closing, ownership of the Montana Children’s Center has changed several times. Leslie Adams and her father bought it in 2005 and spent several years repairing and restoring the old buildings. When the orphanage closed, the staff simply locked the doors and left, so there was a lot of work to be done. The property was considered in a proposal for the home of the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, but it lost out to another building.
The Montana Children’s Center certainly did a lot of good. Children were well fed, clothed and taught valuable life lessons. Still, it would be wrong to discredit the feelings of those who grew up under those conditions. The orphanage certainly filled a need, but it does have a dark side to its history.
Montana’s past is so fascinating. Check out these
10 historical facts many people don’t know.