The Manistee Industrial School

Several months ago in this column I made mention of the Manistee Industrial Society that was located in Maxwelltown in 1883.

Members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pose for a group photo circa 1900.

The “society” was described as more or less like a vocational school for children (boys and girls) and young adults. Roughly three years later an industrial school was established in the city by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). This school, called “The Manistee Industrial School”, was strictly for the rehabilitation of troubled girls (some from broken families and some orphans) with the WCTU helping to provide personal, social and vocational guidance.

A letter written by Mrs. Sophia Benedict (a member of the WCTU) asking for the public’s monetary help in keeping the school opened, was published in the Manistee Times-Sentinel on July 12, 1889. The letter, detailing exactly how the school works, provides an interesting account of the day-to-day operations of an industrial school, albeit…a religious one. Portions of the original letter follow:

“Dear Friends – Believing that the causes which made the establishment of our institution desirable, operate to a greater or less extent all over the State, and desiring to bring to your notice an effort on behalf of young girls, which has passed the period of experiment and become a success, these lines are addressed to all who would co-operate in restoring wayward girls to a life of honorable industry. As this school is under the fostering care of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, we especially call the attention of our sister organizations to our work.

“It is no new information to intelligent observers to say that run, and its allied evils, are sadly disorganizing family life among the people. The children of these broken and ruined families are, in many cases, surrounded by the worst influences, which early destroy character and reputation, especially of the girls, of whom many become degraded women. In better conditioned families lack of restraint, idleness and sensational reading, often start the girls on a downward course. Recognizing these sad conditions, our noble State Institutions at Adrian and Coldwater are doing all that the State can do to check and counteract these evils.

“Whenever her misconduct becomes flagrant the youthful criminal is arrested, sentenced and sent to Adrian – which is infinitely better than the former hopeless slide down the inclined plane – beginning with a short term in jail, succeeded by repeated short terms in the house of correction and ending with the pauper’s or suicide’s coffin and grave.

“Here and there efforts are made to save neglected and wronged girls from becoming criminals. Our Industrial School in Manistee is one of these efforts.

“In February, 1886, this institution was opened. As we have opportunity we take young girls of 12 years or over – in need of special restraint or protection – on apprentices indenture, which expires when they are 18 years of age. We have, on several occasions, taken girls who had been sentenced to the Adrian Reform School, but were not depraved girls.

“This is a school of restraint. The girls never go out without being accompanied by either the Matron or Assistant. Whenever practicable and desirable, an outing is given them. They attend worship and Sunday School in company with the Matron.

“While undoubtedly this restraint gives our institution a prison-like character, the internal management is that of a family, or family school. Parental love and unflinching firmness are expected of those who undertake the task of controlling and training hitherto uncontrolled, untrained and unloved girls.

“The best interests of the pupils, their favorable development of mind and body, are the paramount object. Nothing is tolerated in the institution which might in any way have an evil, reflex influence upon them.

“Regularity of rising and working hours, of school sessions and recreation time, is made as nearly absolute as possible, except in cases of sickness.

“The instruction in household work and sewing is given by the Assistant Matron. The girls learn to cut and make their own garments, do knitting, crocheting and other fine work, besides making different kinds of floor matting and rugs. The sewing department supplies all the needs of the house, while the laundry is the most available and paying industry of the institution.

“Three months’ kitchen work, three months in laundry, then three months dining-room work, followed by as much time in chamber work, constitute a year’s manual training.

“After breakfast the working dresses of the girls are exchanged for school dresses and light aprons. School commences at the stroke of the public school bells, and continues until 4. Then comes recess, which is spent in the yard, when the weather is favorable. On cold, rainy days, the laundry or other basement rooms give opportunity for games.

“Supper is served at 6; then after evening devotions, and sometime on the playground, a study hour closes the duties of the day.

“The girls retire at 8 o’clock. Fifteen minutes later the signal for extinguishing lights is given.

“We are deeply interested in our pupils, not for what they are, but for what, by the help of God, they may become. Let no one who regards them with loathing or contempt, put her hands to this work, which of all others, first requires a willing mind.

“The Matron is the teacher, bookkeeper and general superintendent, of the institution. Our girls are healthy, happy and submissive.”

In terms of where the school was located, it is largely believed to have been located in a building on Water Street that had been given to the WCTU by the late David D. Ruggles. The letter continues:

“It has been well-furnished through the efforts of our friends and contains in the upper story the sleeping rooms of the pupils; on the first floor, office, sitting-room; and in the basement, dining room, kitchen, laundry, storeroom, etc.

“The institution is supported by free-will offerings and subscriptions, to which the laundry ads, every year, a not inconsiderable sum.

“There are at present nine girls in this home. Six have finished their time, and been dismissed. Of these, two are married, two are working in good places, one has returned to Europe with her mother, and one who was not mentally sound is in the Asylum at Traverse City.

“In the Industrial School in Manistee they (the girls) might be admitted, given a thorough English education, and the moral and industrial training which would make them fit to become good wives and mothers, able to get a livelihood independently and honorably.

“In order to be enabled to extend the usefulness and efficiency of the Industrial School, the Board of Managers desire to raise an endowment fund of $30,000. $1,000 given to the institution or a note payable at death of donor (or sooner) and bearing 5 percent annual interest, secures a perpetual scholarship.”

The Manistee Industrial School was seemingly in operation until approximately the turn of the 20th Century.





Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531

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