Boys Totem Town says goodbye


Boys Totem Town, the all-male juvenile detention facility located in the Battle Creek neighborhood, was closed by Ramsey County on Aug. 1. (Marjorie Otto photo/Review)

A commemorative event was held Aug. 14 for former residents, staff and community members to say goodbye to Boys Totem Town. (Marjorie Otto photos/Review)

Marjorie Otto
news editor

Boys Totem Town has been a major part of the East Side community for more than 100 years.

Community members touched by the juvenile detention facility came together Aug. 14 to commemorate its closing.

The event served as a reunion of sorts for current and former staff, residents and neighbors of the facility and its 72 acres, to see the grounds one last time before they’re decommissioned by Ramsey County. 

In May, the county’s Director of Community Corrections, John Klavins, announced that Totem Town would close Aug. 1 following a steady decline in the number of youth being placed at the residential facility. 

In 2005, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners adopted a plan called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative as a “strategy for combating disproportionate minority contact with the corrections system.”

The initiative included reform work started in 2014 to reduce the reliance on out-of-home placements, like Boys Totem Town, instead focusing on more proactive and community-driven programs that keep youth near their families. 

During a May county board workshop, county staffers discussed what led to the decision to close the facility, citing a near 60% drop in residents at the facility over the past five years, as well as changes in the county’s corrections department.

The decision to close was based on the projected and current populations at the all-male center. As of June 1 the 36-bed facility had five residents, having received its last new resident on Jan. 28. It stopped accepting residents May 1, and the last resident finished the program on July 27.

 

Changes, similarities
The site that would become known as Boys Totem Town was established in 1913, although juvenile detention had been established in Ramsey County a few years earlier. 

According to historical documents from the county, following a 1907 authorization from the Minnesota Legislature, Ramsey County created its boys detention home. For a time it was located at 753 East Seventh St., called the Mayall House. The location quickly faced overcrowding and the county purchased an 80-acre farm in the southeast corner of the city, which “the boys literally walked down East Seventh Street” to in the summer of 1913.

For the first 50 or so years at the detention facility, most of the activities consisted of farming. The boys raised dairy cows, pigs, chickens, grew vegetables and other crops and fed themselves with what they produced. 

Farming was still an activity up until the very end — boys through last month tended a vegetable garden grown in conjunction with Metropolitan State University. During the commemorative event on Aug. 14, tomato plants, which had been planted by youth this spring, were full of fruit.

Gerald Settles, interim assistant superintendent at Totem Town — he worked at the facility for 15 years — said tending the garden on Saturday mornings was one of the boys’ most favorite activities.

“I think it was therapeutic, the kids loved it,” he said, adding they enjoyed growing something and seeing the results of their work. 

Up until just a few years ago, the boys would set up a farmers market with their produce, Settles said, which saw a lot of community support.

Another successful and resident-favorite program, Settles said, was Urban Boatbuilders. He said not only did the boys enjoy learning new skills and working with their hands, but that a lot of young men in the program used those skills to get jobs later as adults.

St. Paul Public Schools was also a partner with Totem Town from its inception, providing most of the education programming at the center and allowing boys to earn credits toward high school graduation.

 

Expanding, shrinking
When detention moved to the Totem Town site, the farmhouse there could house 30 boys — they all shared one bathroom — and overcrowding continued to be a problem. 

During the 1930s, a number of Works Progress Administration projects added facilities to the site. It was during that time that the name Totem Town began being used, on account of the trees that were carved into totem poles by the boys at the facility. The name became official in the 1950s. 

From midcentury through the 1990s, the facilities were expanded and updated to keep it up-to-date and modern, making it so that more than 150 boys could be served there.

During the Aug. 14 commemoration, two men who’d lived at Totem Town spoke. One said staff members there had served as mentors, while the other said the facility and its job skills training helped him become a successful business owner.

Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough described the day as emotional, especially for staffers who worked with the youth at the facility. Commissioner Toni Carter said the closure was one step in doing better work for youth in the county. 

Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor acknowledged that closing Boys Totem Town is tough for many people, especially as the community and county move forward on addressing future uses of the site.

“Change doesn’t come easily,” he said, adding that juvenile justice reform in the county “doesn’t stop here.”

As Ramsey County finishes decommissioning the facility, it will be working with the City of St. Paul and the District 1 Community Council — which serves to organize the neighborhoods of Battle Creek, Highwood Hills, Eastview and Conway — to begin creating a plan for the site. 

For updates and to find ways to get involved, contact the District 1 Community Council by calling 651-578-7600 or go to www.district1council.org.

 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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