In the hopes of seeing autumn leaves change color, my husband and I headed to Stillwater, Minnesota on a Saturday afternoon in late September. We hadn’t yet heard that fall was expected to be two weeks late this year, which we figured out for ourselves after seeing nary a colored tree. Having driven 37 miles from the Twin Cities, we needed to find something to do. We soon discovered the original Warden’s House built in 1853 next to the state’s first prison and decided to take a tour and indulge our geeky natures.
In the late 1840s, while Minnesota was still a territory, the three largest cities at that time – Minneapolis, St. Paul and Stillwater-were in the running to be declared the official state capitol by the time statehood was granted in 1858. St. Paul won, and Stillwater’s claim to fame was that the city housed the first prison.
Right next door to the prison stands a house that is over 150 years old. Today it is called the Warden’s House Museum, but from 1853 to 1914, it housed the first 13 prison wardens for Stillwater Prison. At that time, the prison moved to Bayport, Minnesota. The house continued to be used as living quarters for prison wardens and superintendents of the Bayport Prison until 1941, when it was donated to the Washington County Historical Society. It opened its doors as one of the first museums made from a private home that same year, and continues to operate in that manner today.
Touring the Warden’s House
The Warden’s House of Stillwater is decorated in a motif that was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Visitors are treated to a private tour of 14 rooms, which give them a first-hand look at how upper middle-class families lived in that era. From the Victorian furniture to the set-up of the kitchen to depict preparation of the family meal, I definitely felt like I had stepped back in time. If I had any doubts, all I had to do was look to the manual typewriter or the wooden children’s toys in other areas of the house.
Famous Prison Residents
Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, part of the infamous James-Younger gang, were captured after a failed attempt to rob Northfield State Bank in Minnesota in the fall of 1876. The James brothers were none other than Jesse and Frank. Together with the Younger’s and various other gang members, they robbed banks and trains throughout the Midwest for more than 10 years.
Several people were killed in the unsuccessful robbery of Northfield State Bank, and the gang of robbers initially escaped. However, authorities chased them over a span of 400 miles, not an easy feat when horses were the main mode of transportation. Eventually, the Younger brothers were caught and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Bob Younger died in prison in 1889 and his two brothers were paroled in 1901. Jim killed himself the following year, and Cole passed away in 1916. All three were well-behaved prisoners, and Cole was responsible for starting the newspaper, the Prison Mirror. It is still in circulation today.