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In operation for nearly 80 years, Stillwater prison’s twine factory produced over a billion pounds of cordage

The plan to manufacture binder twine within the prison arose from many factors: farmers’ demands for cheap twine, political pressure to make the prison profitable, and reformers’ desire to provide skills to incarcerated people.

historic photo of inside of stillwater twine factory
The twine factory floor at Minnesota State Prison, Bayport (later Stillwater). Photo by C. J. Hibbard, ca. 1914.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A cornerstone of the prison labor system for almost eighty years, the binder twine factory at the Minnesota State Prison employed thousands of inmates who produced over a billion pounds of cordage for regional farmers. The twine-manufacturing industry began at the original facility and continued at a custom-built factory on a new site after the prison moved in 1914. The factory closed in 1970.

By the late 1880s, officials at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater were desperately searching for an industry to employ the hundreds of incarcerated people within the facility. Numerous scandals of the previous decades resulted in the state legislature’s 1887 crackdown on private industry within the prison. A plan to manufacture binder twine within the prison arose from many factors: farmers’ demands for cheap twine, political pressure to make the prison profitable, and reformers’ desire to provide skills to incarcerated people.

In January of 1891, machinery and installation experts arrived in Stillwater from Ireland. A month later, prisoners successfully manufactured the first binder twine on site. Henry Wolfer, the prison’s warden, closely monitored and controlled the upstart operation. Efficiency increased quickly, and by 1892 the prison had sold over one million pounds of binder twine to area farmers. The initial success of the factory rested on the labor of over 130 incarcerated people, supervised by a handful of civilian guards, who were employed in manufacturing the binder twine.

Even as incarcerated workers produced more twine, supply remained short of local farmers’ demands. Binder twine was essential for wheat harvesting, in which Minnesota farmers led the world. Prison officials focused intently on increasing production. The factory’s success led the Minnesota State Prison’s twine factory to become a model for similar operations in other midwestern states.

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By 1897, the twine industry was fully running. Funds from the sale of twine generally enabled the prison to operate at a profit, pleasing prison officials and politicians. A decade later, 225 incarcerated workers at the factory produced over 15 million pounds of twine.

At the beginning of the operation, incarcerated workers in the twine factory earned an average of ten cents a day. Working ten hours a day, six days a week was mandatory for all prisoners without a disability. Rules in the factory were strict; silence was enforced. Noisy machinery, however, allowed for some secretive conversations. Therefore, the factory may have been a space of relative freedom for the workers compared to prison cells and silent mealtimes.

The four floors and numerous rooms making up the twine factory and warehouses bustled with incarcerated workers engaged in a variety of tasks. First, they unloaded, weighed, and stored the “raw” fiber. Then, they spread it out and fed it to a succession of combing and spinner machines to create large spools of twine. Workers then transported the spools on small carts to the balling machines, which created five-pound balls. They weighed and tested the twine balls and packed them into fifty-pound bales Finally, workers moved the bales to a large warehouse, where they stacked them to the rafters. Accidents in the twine factory and warehouse were frequent. Hospital records document fingers, hands, and legs caught in machinery; falls from ladders; and injuries from falling twine bales.

In 1910, twine factory operations began to shift to the new Stillwater State Prison complex, which was constructed to replace the decrepit original facility. A custom-built twine factory and three-story warehouse at the new prison were completed by 1914. In the subsequent decades, inmates continued churning out twine, and farmers snapped up their product. Prison officials were proud of the twine operation and its output. Beginning in the 1920s, twine samples were displayed at the Minnesota State Fair. At this time, incarcerated workers at the twine factory produced over 20 million pounds of twine annually. By the factory’s fiftieth anniversary in 1941, incarcerated workers had produced almost a billion pounds.

In 1970, officials closed the twine factory, citing its failure to provide marketable skills to inmates. In 2002, the final chapter of the Stillwater twine factory concluded when a fire started by an arsonist destroyed almost all of the original prison buildings, including the twine factory and warehouse.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.