There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage

Children pose in front of "the Castle" in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328
Children pose in front of “the Castle” in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328

At first no one noticed the children as they sat quietly in the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse. The six Freedman children, ages eight to fifteen, had filed in with their mother early that morning in 1938. Recently divorced from her husband and earning little in her job as a research editor, Alice Freedman was overwhelmed. Before leaving the children, she told them to wait for her return. As the day wore on, county workers noticed the children. At noon they bought them lunch and contacted the juvenile court. That evening, the Freedman children were taken to a local receiving home. Within two weeks, they were committed to the state orphanage and on their way to the facility in Twin Bridges.

Similar scenarios had played out for the thousands of other residents of the Montana State Orphanage. Most, like the Freedman children, were not true orphans, but rather “orphans of the living,” from homes shattered by devastating poverty, turbulent parental relationships, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, or physical and emotional abuse. In the absence of local, state, or federal social welfare programs, the state orphanage was one of the few options available to these children and the destitute women who could no longer care for them.

Between 1894, when the facility opened, and 1975, when legislative cuts forced its closure, the Montana State Orphanage housed over five thousand children. Established to provide “a haven for innocent children whose poverty and need might lead to lives of crime,” the orphanage was designed along nineteenth-century lines to prepare children for productive adult lives by segregating them and providing them with food, education, vocational training, and a rigid structure.

However, even as the orphanage’s first building, a sprawling Victorian structure known as “The Castle,” was being completed, attitudes toward needy children were changing. By the early 1900s, Progressive Era reformers began arguing that orphanages were dehumanizing and rife with abuse. Children, they claimed, needed a healthy home life, with their parents, if possible, or, if not, with a worthy foster family. To achieve this goal, they advocated the creation and expansion of government agencies to address the needs of abandoned, abused, or widowed women and their children.

Emma Ingalls and Maggie Smith Hathaway, the first women elected to the state legislature in 1916, worked to advance these goals in Montana. Hathaway championed creation of the Montana Mother’s Pension, which provided direct financial support to abandoned or widowed women, allowing some of them to keep their children at home. Ingalls advocated for creation of the Bureau of Child and Animal Protection to provide oversight for children adopted or placed in foster care. With the creation of the bureau and the Mother’s Pension, the state orphanage began its transformation from a predominantly long-term care institution to a way station for children until foster homes could be found.

Aerial View of the Montana State Orphanage in Twin Bridges
As traditional orphanages lost favor the state instituted reforms, like the cottage system, in an effort to make the orphanage feel more home-like. Western Air Photo, Rexburg, Idaho, photographer, MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-86.75

The trend away from institutionalizing children continued in the 1930s, when the depression brought the expansion of government social welfare programs. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), established in 1935, provided direct relief to poor single mothers. With the expansion of this and other social welfare programs, as well as a growing emphasis on foster care and a postwar prosperity that left fewer families destitute, increasingly fewer children ended up in the orphanage. In the 1930s the average population of the Twin Bridges institution was 282. By 1959, when the facility was more appropriately renamed the Children’s Home, the average number of residents had declined to 156. By 1975, when the facility closed, only 50 children were in residence, awaiting placement in foster care.

One hundred years after the Montana State Orphanage opened its doors, the issue of how government should respond to poor women and their children reignited during the debate over welfare reform. In fact, Congressman Newt Gingrich, the author of the Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” specifically espoused reopening orphanages as a cost-cutting measure.

At a reunion held in 1995, former residents of the orphanage—who had lived there between 1914 and 1969—discussed the debate over reopening orphanages and their varied experiences in the facility. Some felt that with reforms—more affection for individual children, more oversight of staff, and more allowances for siblings to be together—orphanages could provide proper care. Most agreed, however, that the orphanage system, as they experienced it, had failed them.

Harold Freedman, one of Alice Freedman’s oldest children, stated that “It was in some ways a rather shocking move . . . to be put in an orphanage, but . . . I felt a lot of pressure lifted off me because I had worried so much about our situation.” Fred Wentz found orphanage life particularly hard because he had siblings who had remained at home. “The problem was that I knew I had brothers and sisters somewhere. . . . I just didn’t know why I was in the orphanage and not with them. That hurt me. I’ve carried that throughout my life.” For Donna Engebretson, the orphanage provided an important safety net. Even so, she said, “I had a lot of difficulty in my later years . . . understanding how the outside world worked, how a family functions and understanding relationships.”

Alice Freedman, and other women like her, did not want their children growing up in the orphanage; it was simply their only option. In the years following her children’s placement, Freedman worked to have the four oldest children released to her. The youngest, a set of twins, left the home in 1945.

Expansion of social welfare programs led to the orphanage’s closure. While these programs did not guarantee healthy homes for destitute women and families like the Freedmans, they clearly expanded the possibility of achieving such homes. JF

Women religious played a large role in creating private institutions, including schools and orphanages. Learn more about their work in “Early Social Service Was Women’s Work.”



Baumler, Ellen. “After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol.” Women’s History Matters blog. Accessed November 17, 2014.

Engebretson, Donna. Interview by Jodie Foley, July 22, 1995, OH 1632, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

Freedman, Harold. Interview by Jodie Foley, July 21, 1995, OH 1634, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

Freedman, Noel. Interview by Jodie Foley, July 21, 1995, OH 1633, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

“Memories of the Orphanage.” Seattle Times, July 21, 1995. Accessed November 17, 2014

Montana Children’s Center Records. RS 95, boxes 5 and 7, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

“The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage.” Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 1996.

Wentz, Fred. Interview by Jodie Foley, July 22, 1995, OH 1635, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

“White House Conferences on Children.” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History. Accessed October 27, 2014.


54 thoughts on “There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage

  1. My eldest brother was placed in an orphanage at the age of two. Our mother and his father were divorcing after a nasty and abusive marriage. Vern was in there for seven years before somebody adopted him. In fact, it was the head of the orphanage. I believe it was in Great Falls. We finally found him about three years ago. He had no clue he had younger siblings. I had been trying to find him for almost 30 years. Being as our mother was native, we had little to go on.

    1. Gail, My Grandmother was in this same home at an infant, Fostered out 3 times and then finally adopted at age 5 by people that I believe ran this Home. I cannot find her relatives for the life of me.
      I do have a birth certificate, shows her Mother as Edna Smith, my Grandmother was born on 3/11/1911, She knew nothing of her past when she passed away in 1974, when I was a teenager.
      She was at the Montana Childrens Home Society, and I believe it was ran by Rev Fred O. Hess and his wife.
      Any direction you can give me would be great. Thanking you in advance!

      1. The people who eventually adopted Vern had the last name of Weeks. They also adopted a little girl with Down syndrome at the same time. They lived on a farm.

        1. Gail,

          wondering what all information you have on this orphanage? I am looking to find my mom’s relatives. She was in an orphanage in montana because her mother died and father could not take care of them. Her brother was Jamie Arensmeyer after adoption I believe and her name was jeri kay after the adoption. I think Willis before that. I think the orphanage they were in burnt down with all the records?? They were adopted and put on a farm

          1. Just an fyi. I ran into an orphanage being burned down in Helena by the Catholic Cathedral. Could that be where she was before she was adopted. I am thinking the orphanage burned in the early 60s as my biological aunt told me her mother (my biological grandmother) always liked to drive by the orphanage when they were in Helena but then 1 day they drove by and found it had burned to the ground. Aunt Margie said it broke her mother’s heart and Margie never new why until she met her brother and heard his story.

    2. I was able to obtain my records in regard to the State Orphans Home in Twin Bridges, MT. I have my Report Cards, and letters from my Mother, letters which the administration held back from us because of “promises” that might not keep.” One letter was an exchange between my Montana Mother, and my California, Father (we six kids were victims of a broken home. -My mother wrote to father: “The kids want out!” Father wrote back these questions and replys: “Are the kids safe? Yes. Are the kids warm? Yes. Are the kids eating? Yes. Father closed with with sass-back: “Leave’em.” My career turned out to be selling real estate. I remember when I asked a transferred Seller, “how are the kids taking it?” He rocked me back when he said: I never asked them!” Then went on to say: “What ever I do for my children is in their interest!” Looking back, apparently my father did the same thing.

      1. I am trying to find my records I was there 1971 to 1974. Do you kniw where I could start looking? Thank you so much!

  2. I believe one of my mother’s distant relatives, George White, may have sponsored the Montana bill which created the Twin Bridges orphanage. I also have a relative who was adopted from Twin Bridges into the loving home in Missoula, Mt. Creation of the orphanage surely saved lives and, though not perfect, it gave youngsters a chance to lead a productive life.

  3. My memories of 4years at the Montana orphanage at Twin Bridges. Both of my parents died when I was seven years old and was taken to the orphanage in. 1932 and was there for 4years. When I was 9 years old I was moved up to my age group to cottage 5 and the matron was Ms.Hyman. She would give each of us a whipping about5times per week. All of us boys would cry except Robert Chenowith who never let peep out. Once this made her so angry that she said “I’ll keep this up until you cry”.After whipping Robert for a long time, he finally said a groaning “Ow”. That was the only time I heard her laugh but it was more of a cackle.

    1. Sam Wyrouck, Ms.Hyman sounds like a horrible person, giving each of you a whipping about 5 times per week. Making all you boys cry. Robert Chenowith who never let peep out making her angry enough that she said “I’ll keep this up until you cry”, then whipping Robert for a long time, he finally said a groaning “Ow”. “Then she laughed but it was more of a cackle.” How cruel. I feel so sorry for you and the other boys. God Bless. I hope you were able to have somewhat of a peaceful life after that. You deserved it. The last I heard that old place in Twin Bridges, MT is vacant and has been for quite some time.

      1. Crazy what you find on the internet. I am Nancy and the grandchild of Mrs Hyndman. My heart breaks to learn of her cruelty and offer all those injured by her my sincere prayers and sorrow. When she worked there, she had custody of my father, whom she treated with equal cruelty every day. But some of the children in the home did as well. There were attempts on his life and he found hatred from all sides. My prayer is for all in her care to have gone on to long and good lives to find joy and happiness. I must tell you, my father did. He buried her in 1953 and went on to be a good man, husband and father until 2013. He followed Christ’s example to love and forgive. We Hyndmans will see our parents again for eternity. But maybe not our grandmother. Blessings to all.

    2. I hope Ms. Hymen is burning in hell along with anyone else who made these poor children suffer at their hands. What horrible cruelty! God Bless you and all the others.

  4. My Grandmother was an orphan of the Montana State orphanage in/about 1911 as a newborn. She was Fostered by 3 other families and they continued to take her back to the orphanage. In 1915 she was adopted by Fred O. Hess and his wife Essie. The Hess’s wrote letters back and forth throughout the years to the Hawks which were the Superintendents of the Montana Children’s Home Finding Society for many years. My Grandmother told us that she thought she was part Indian, possibly Crow. Her mother may have been white.
    I wished we knew more about where my Grandmother was from. She was born in Shodair Hosp. Her birth certificate is very sketchy, showing no fathers name and just a mothers name of Verna Smith. If anyone can suggest or help, I would deeply appreciate it.

    1. I don’t know how much help I can be or what I will be able to find if anything but, I have after over 30 years searched for many lost family of my own including an older sister who did not even know she had a sister, as well as found many other lost ones for family and friends, I’m no professional but if be glad to try, and see if I can help? My email is
      Feel free to contact me if you would like an amateur people finder take a look.

    2. I joined Ancestry. I was adopted too. My mother was given the names of my parents. You get a list of people who share your DNA. I started contacting them.

  5. My late husband n his brother n sister he was 5 or 6 brother was 3. or4 sister was. 2 they were there four years he always ran away his mom got them back his father drank a lot n was really mean to him his mom drank also my husband was wonderful to his daughters kind n hugged them good dad!

  6. I just learned about this place due to the Ghost documentaries It is deeply disturbing to find out people were so mean for no reason I live in Oklahoma and a Center here closed and it was for Development Diabled about the same time The places that replaced the large facility are still not good such a great need not enough people to really care and do good

  7. Four of my siblings and myself were at the twin bridges orphanage 1961 / 1962.
    I actually liked it there and was treated well .
    My house parents name was Mr. and Mrs. Moore and they were extremely nice people .
    Some of the kids were pretty rough but it wasn’t that bad .

    1. So nice to hear something good! We stop by there and it feels like a sanctuary to me. While nothing replaces a loving family home, one can tell the intent was to provide shelter and learning, and some play here. I cant imagine what many young lives would have been like if there were no place to go!

      1. After me and my two brothers and three sisters ended up in the Orphanage, my Montana mother wrote to our California living father and said: “…the kids want out!” And father wrote back these self asked questions and self-answered replies: “Are the kids safe? Answer, Yes. Are warm? Answer: Yes. Are the kids eating? Answer, Yes. Then father closed with this reply: “Leave ’em.”

      2. The Ghost Ventures documentary can be seen on U-tube: Twin Bridges MT Orphanage. The book Dumped is a Google e-book . The content is based upon the author’s experiences in the Orphanage.

  8. I was also an orphan myself,but not in Twin bridges -I was an orphan in a foreign country till I was 7 years old,but I was an orphan tI’ll 1985 til 1993.
    When I watched an episode of Historical adventures on Twin Bridges orphanage, I felt that thesettlement children that I looked at were like me since I was like them-an orphan myself It made me sad to see how they were treated at twin bridges orphanage-I tooknow pictures of them and the orphanage

  9. I was also in twin bridges and my 3 brothers .i was the 63 now my 2 brothers committed suicide at age 23..and my other brother is God know where.our dad did not want us .mom tried but he was a drunk.we spent many years there.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your brothers. I also lost my brother in Montana to suicide. I live in Maryland, and the thought that I may have been able to help him, if I had been closer, never leaves me.

  10. My Mother and her 2 brothers were here too I am gonna guess 1943 to 1949? We knew nothing of this and she ever spoke of it, we found out after she passed away. We are looking any info that we can. Her name was Barbara Parsell and brothers Justin Parsell and Ellis Parsell.

  11. When I was about 7 years old in 1959 , we had a neighbor in Bozeman mt named McDonald. He had several kids and his wife died and he had to sell the farm. We bought some of his livestock. I think all the kids went to the orphanage. My mom took care of one of the little boys and we tried to adopt but the state said we didn’t have enough money. Always wondered what happened to those kids.

    1. your story sounds a lot like my moms as I was growing up. My mom, brother and I believe sister were put up for adoption by their father because their mother died in Montana. They were adopted by the Arensmeyers. I think I remember her saying her birth name was willis. I know her middle name was Kay because they kept that.

  12. The Christmas of 1964, we lived in Dillon Mt. Back then you could bring a kid home from the orphanage for Christmas. Dad brought home a boy about my age and all I remember was that his name was Garth. We gave him a board game. I think of him often and hope he has a good life.

  13. Wow what a find for me. I have been doing research about my father since the early 80s. Dad was born in Butte in 1927 and 3 weeks later was sent to the orphanage in Helena. I often think of the hell his biological mother went through when she was forced to give up her son 3 weeks after she had connected with him. It is my understanding her family was in a position to support the orphanage while dad was there. He was eventually adopted 18 months later and grew up in central Montana – Hilger/Lewistown area. I tried to work with the Catholic Cathedral there (as the adoption was through the Catholic Church) and all I could find out was there were 2 orphanages in Helena(??) and the adoption was “closed” and they could not tell me any more. My father never did have an official birth certificate. His biological name was Gavin from Anaconda area. I was able to find a half sister (what a blessing) some cousins and an aunt. Sadly most are deceased now. I never did find out whom his father was. I would love more information and if you have any ideas please let me know.

  14. My Great Grandmother and her sisters were there at the turn of the century. I had no idea what went on there. I live in Missoula, I cannot believe that this is the first time I have heard any of this. How terrible.

  15. My name is Donna Engbretson (now Fullner). I loved my life growing up in the “Orphanage”. Sadness, emotional loss yes, but in comparison of others it was good. My memories are of dancing to the songs of the 60s. Dancing when ever music played with who ever was there. We went on many bus trips, Rodeo’s, Anaconda Smelter for fireworks on the 4th of July , even Disneyland. I was a cheerleader and I belonged to a square dance group that performed for local groups. A local beautician taught us how to wear makeup and styled our hair on one day. I took ballet lessons one summer and belonged to 4-H where I learned to sew. The ladies from the Orphanages sewing room taught me how to make waist bands and sew zippers. I made money making skirts for the town girls. They bought the material and gave me money. I baby sat and ironed for an employee who paid me. My grandmother took me home to Great Falls every summer of the whole 8 years I was there.
    My Family fell apart when my mother disappeared and my father proved incapable to care for us. We were placed by the social services of MT. I never found my mother tho we all looked.
    I have had a huge life filled with travel, family, extended family. Church and my three children and a good husband with a large extended family.
    Only once did I hear voices when visiting the Orphanage. When I stood in the empty dormitory I could hear the actual voices as memories cam flooding back. Not frightening because we were dancing and smoking. My scientist daughter explains that our brain holds.memories and can replay them exactly as they were created. I was glad she told me that because as I stood in th hallway of that same building I re-lived the moments a “matron “ drug me from one end of the hall way and back again by my pony tail after I casually said “hi b$#!” before we both regained our senses. My son said it was the straw that broke the camels back and I deserved it. (Smile).Rage was the emotion in play, both hers and mine.
    Aside from that, I give my thanks to all I learn there that gave me a work ethic and many skills that served me well.

  16. My birth mother, Lois Perkins, lived there from age 3 to 18. Her mother was in an insane asylum and her alcoholic father couldn’t care for her and her 2 older brothers, Lewis and Andrew. They were there in the 1930s and 1940s, probably. Does anyone recognize her name? I don’t know what she did after leaving there at age 18, but she gave birth to me in 1962 and gave me up for adoption. She then had 4 more kids that she kept. She died young in 1974 in a car accident.

  17. I was in the Twin Bridges Center from 69 to 70. I had 2 sisters and one brother. I was 8 when I went there and was in Meadowlark cottage. My sisters and brothers were all in different cottages and only saw each other for dinner on Sundays. They said it was to keep us from planning on running away. I remember 2 of my house parents, one was Mrs Burris and the other Mr Green. They were both very wonderful people. We went to the church in Twin Bridges on Sunday and we got to go to the small theater by the river once in awhile. Also the roller skating rink. My brother and I were taken by one of the counselors that worked there his name was Eldon Chapman and I ended up staying and growing up at his parents house and it was a wonderful time. After reading about Noel Freedman’s experience I know things were much better at the end of the Children Centers life. My sisters and I stayed in touch thank goodness but being apart all week til Sundays was tough. I did go to tour the center after it closed to show my wife and it was in a sad state from when I was there. Wishing all that were there a better life.

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