A penal institution in a park?
For 78 years, from 1882 until 1960, the St. Paul Workhouse occupied a portion of Como Park. Its red brick, three-story building stood where the Como Regional Park Pool is now located.
Back in 1881, the St. Paul City Council granted the workhouse board 40 acres of land in Como Park, upon which to erect the city’s new workhouse. The 260-acre park lay dormant, awaiting funds for development, and was then on the rural outskirts of the city.
The building opened in February 1883 and admitted its first inmate, the “notorious” David Hoar, sentenced to 60 days for drunkenness, not for the first time or the last. The building had 30 twoperson cells, an assembly room on the third floor and dungeons in the basement. Workhouse staff included an on-call physician, a chief jailer, four guards (one of whom was also a barber), a teamster and two cooks.
The workhouse lived up to its name: Inmates were put to work for the duration of their sentences, which ranged from five days (which was more common) to a year (a rare sentence). Soon after it opened, inmates helped build an on-site residence for the workhouse superintendent and two additions to the already-too-small workhouse.
The facility became a selfsustaining institution. Inmates grew hay, oats, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables on 20 acres of former woodland that had been cleared for farming and gardening. The grains and produce were sold and profits were used to fund workhouse operations. A knitting shop opened in 1886 and produced socks and other items for lumbermen. When demand for knitted goods decreased, a broom factory opened in 1895. Tailor and shoe shops operated in later years.
Women inmates worked in the laundry and made prison garments. Inmates also labored in the park, clearing brush and grubbing stumps, building fences, thinning out the woods and making roads. When inmates were not at work, they were confined to their cells.
Those sentenced to the workhouse could look forward to a ride out to “the summer resort by the lake” in the Black Maria, a horsedrawn workhouse van. Most were first-time offenders convicted of drunkenness, vagrancy, larceny and disorderly conduct. A few regulars highlighted in a 1904 article earned nicknames like “Repeater Pete” Heaney, 22, sentenced 29 times by then, or Hannah Albrecht, 55, “The Lady of the Lake,” then serving her 38th sentence.
When inmates came to the workhouse to serve their sentences, they were searched, bathed and given a haircut. Dressed in prison garb and fed with soup, bread and coffee, prisoners were set to work until the bell rang at 8:30 p.m., after which they spent the long night in their cells in complete darkness.
In 1887, funds became available for park development and a park board was established. One of the first tasks encountered by the new board was the workhouse: It did not belong in the park and should be relocated elsewhere as soon as possible. Its “naked breadths of ploughed field, the rough board fences and other agricultural incidents, do not form an agreeable frontispiece to the picture book of the park,” park board president J. A. Wheelock stated in 1895. Though he praised it as “exceptionally wellmanaged” and an important factor in the work of park improvements from 1883-1894, he described workhouse inmates as “not the best kind of labor.”
Workhouse inmates provided more than 72,000 days of work in the park during that period. However, inmates had to work in one large group under guard for relatively short periods of time and did not necessarily care about the quality of their work.
While the workhouse was “temporarily” located in the park, the park board wanted to at least hide its “uncouth and forbidding aspect” behind trees. Board members felt especially sore that the workhouse board had cut down those 20 acres of trees for a farm. The workhouse was considered a serious impediment to the development of that part of the park, not at all in keeping with the grand park entrance planned at Lexington Parkway.
Unfortunately, the city couldn’t afford to move the workhouse elsewhere.
In 1898, the park board asserted its authority and took possession of 24.5 acres of workhouse grounds consisting of most of the workhouse’s farm. When the workhouse board took the matter to court, the court decided that one city board could not sue another. The park board began to plant those trees.
Things got a bit uglier in 1903 when the workhouse added a 150- foot tower to the front of the building. Park superintendent Frederick Nussbaumer declared that the workhouse board, “through an uncontrollable spirit for improvement and electrified by a magic touch of art, built a sentinel on the east front of the building in the shape of a galvanized spire, proclaiming in silent protest its unpleasant prominence in the surroundings.” The workhouse board replied that the park board had trespassed and spoiled a productive farm, and the tower, while perhaps taller than necessary and architecturally out of proportion, was added for fire safety.
Then the park board refused to use workhouse labor, calling the benefit of such labor an “old fiction which sought to justify” the workhouse’s “illegal location” in the park. William Pitt Murray defended the workhouse in a 1904 newspaper article, noting its fine management, chiding the park board being unable to complete its work (without workhouse labor), and mentioning, perhaps with no small satisfaction, that the tower “throws members of the park board into spasms every time they look at it.”
Economic conditions conspired to keep the workhouse in the park and the rhetoric died down. By 1918, the workhouse was old and obsolete. Its cells had no running water or toilets, it was too small and cost too much to operate, the building wasn’t fireproof (even with the tower), the grounds were too small, and inmates had to walk to their work in gravel pits and on city roads through then well-settled residential neighborhoods. The building was repeatedly condemned. Each time, just enough repairs were made to keep it going, but it didn’t make sense to sink large amounts of money into an institution that needed to be relocated.
The slow move out of Como Park began when the workhouse first rented farmland outside the city in 1923. Nineteen years later, it purchased 239 acres in Maplewood and finally, in 1958, groundbreaking for a new facility began there. In 1960, the old workhouse, described in a Pioneer Press article as “ancient, unloved and unlovely,” was torn down.
Sharon Shinomiya is a freelance writer who lives in the Como Park neighborhood.
This article was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.