1856 : Lansing’s Michigan State Reform School Admits First Child

September 2, 2023 all-day

Michigan’s Legislature appropriated money to build a “house of correction for juvenile offenders” in 1855 and passed an act establishing the Michigan State Reform School.

Lansing citizens donated 30 acres of land about a mile from the Capitol, which was supplemented by 195 acres purchased by the state.

The institution was built on North Pennsylvania Avenue and called the Industrial School for Boys.

Located in the area bordered approximately by Pennsylvania Avenue, Saginaw Street, Marshall Street and Jerome Street, the school took in troubled youth with criminal histories.

The first student was enrolled September 2, 1856. Enrollment a year later totaled 54 boys and 8 girls. After the 8th girl, it was decided to exclude young women for “obvious reasons.”

Originally the boys did farm labor in addition to their class work. Gradually the curriculum was changed to vocational guidance courses with classes in baking, hand weaving, shoe making, printing, carpentry, painting and other trades.

Over the years, the school was also known as the Michigan State Reform School, Boys Vocational School and several other variants. The final name was the Boys Training School.

In 1917, the school held nearly 800 juvenile delinquent boys. It also housed orphans in the latter part of the 19th century, when boys as young as age 10 were admitted.

The Boys Training School erected a fieldhouse in 1925, which also hosted circuses and later had bowling alleys. The circuses were major events with elephants, clowns, acrobats, horses, riders, bears, ponies and more.

The school also had its own power plant, tailor shop, hospital, cobbler shop and barber.

Until the late 1930s, most staffers were “cottage parents,” usually a man and his wife, who lived with and managed a group of youth.

The wife often served as a teacher, nurse and foster mother. Later, more social workers, teachers and other professionals were added to the staff.

At one time, a 35-piece band associated with the school became famous throughout the state, but was phased out during the Depression.

By 1964, the facility had a capacity of 400. At that time, it cost $9.84 a day to house and educate a boy in the training school. The county and the state each paid half, except in cases where parents were required to bear a portion of the cost.

In the decade before the school closed  in 1972, the Lansing State Journal reported, it’s leaders had taken steps toward modern rehabilitation, including eliminating marching and compulsory military courtesies around 1962.

Portions of the original plot were sold over the years, including the land that is home to Eastern High School, Lansing Catholic High School and the East Village subdivision.

The school also initiated a community-based cottage where older boys were placed in a more home-like atmosphere. They worked jobs in Lansing and were allowed to come and go almost at will.

The campus was also more permissive, even allowing smoking.

In June of 1972, Gov. William Milliken announced that the 117-year-old state-operated Boys School would close by the end of January 1973, saying it was inadequate to offer modern approaches to youth services.

Some of the young men were assigned to the W.J. Maxey School at Whitmore Lake and others to Girls Training School at Adrian, under a plan that involved making the Adrian school co-ed.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1972, 41 youth climbed aboard a chartered bus and headed for their new “home” at the state’s Whitmore Lake training unit. For the first time in 117 years, the institution at 4000 N. Pennsylvania Ave., was closed.

Most of the remaining buildings were demolished in 1973. The only building remaining is the Don Johnson Fieldhouse, built in 1925, and renovated in 1976.

Source: Vickki Dozier, “Lansing’s Reform School for Boys“, Lansing State Journal, November 14, 2018.