Laura Baker and her school left a lasting legacy 

Much has changed since 1897, when the words “nervous” and “backward” were used to describe children with disabilities. The Laura […]

Laura Baker Millis and Laura Baker taking a photograph

Much has changed since 1897, when the words “nervous” and “backward” were used to describe children with disabilities. The Laura Baker Services Association (LBSA), one of Minnesota’s oldest disability service organizations, is celebrating its 125th year at its annual gala is December 3. 

The association has grown into a diverse nonprofit, helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead meaningful and productive lives. It has continued its commitment to education while offering many other services to children and adults with disabilities in the Northfield area. That includes education and support services, group homes and the Epic Enterprise developmental achievement center in Dundas. 

Northfield author and historian Susan Hvistendahl chronicled the organization’s history for the Northfield Entertainment Guide. This article is excerpted from her work. Be aware that in histories, language is used that would not be used to describe people with disabilities today. 

Who was Laura Belle Baker? Baker was born in Chariton, Iowa, on April 10, 1859. From a family of farmers and activists, her first teaching job was at Iowa’s Glenwood Asylum for Feeble Minded Children, followed by 12 years as principal at the Faribault State School for the Feeble Minded. 

Baker, supported by parents who wanted more for their children, opened her own boarding school in 1897 in South Minneapolis. It was the only private school of its kind in the region. One year later the quest for a quiet rural location took her to Northfield. 

Baker lived with her students during the school’s first 19 years, with housekeepers, house mothers and teachers. Northfield News articles in the early 20th century sang the school’s praises. Students in grades K-8 took a full range of classes and enjoyed evening sessions that included dance, gymnastics and singing. They also did handwork. 

“Doing Splendid Work” was the headline of a June 25, 1920, Northfield News story about another program and exhibit of work at the school. “Miss Baker is the soul of the institution but modestly gives credit” to her teachers,” the article stated. Baker proudly announced she was invited to commencement exercises at the University of Minnesota for a young man who had been her pupil for three years. 

But that same year, Laura Baker School had a tax fight on its hands. The question was whether the school was entitled to be classified as an institution of learning and thus exempt from property taxes – or were the children merely taken care of in a custodial fashion? On Oct. 1, 1920, the Northfield News gave Judge A.B. Childress’ emphatic decision, ruling the school exempt from taxation. “The work done and benefits accomplished by the ‘Baker School’ are of inestimable value to the state. Not alone in the matter of lightening our burdens of taxation, but this school lifts many children from a condition of darkness into light and from a condition little above the animal to that of cheerful, happy, human beings. In my judgment no greater benefit could be conferred upon the state.” 

The school grew academically and physically over the years, with activities including dramatics, glee club, square, tap and ballroom dancing and band. Baker’s philosophy was that singing, dancing and percussion opened minds to further learning. 

Progress continued within the late 1920s with the construction of Margaret Graves Hall, a two-story brick dormitory in Northfield for 18 and 20 pupils. Baker designed facilities to be homelike, something unheard of at that time. In 1928 Baker School purchased a former Faribault mansion for use as the Buckeye Hall school. That facility had about a dozen pupils. 

By the end of 1937, the Laura Baker School had 50 students, 10 teachers, 8 house mothers and 12 other workers. By then the school had helped 350 pupils. By the time of the 75th anniversary in 1973, it was estimated that about 700 pupils had been aided by the school. 

Baker herself became a legendary educator, described as strict yet with a soft spot for disabled children. Her methods were ahead of the times.  

Northfield historian and longtime Northfield News journalist, Maggie Lee, wrote of Baker: “Miss Baker was a tall woman with regal carriage and, during many of her Northfield years, was crowned with snow-white hair. She was described as firm, desirous of perfection, yet patient and able to lavish love on her charges.” A student once gave her the nickname “Old Hawkeye,” a nod to her Iowa roots but, as Lee said, “also because she kept very close watch over her beloved charges.” 

Baker never married,but was a beloved and important figure in countless lives. 

A parent wrote to Baker in 1941, “Since happiness comes from making others happy you should be the happiest person in the world. You stand a head of anyone I have ever known for example of doing for others.” 

Baker’s niece and namesake Laura Baker Millis moved to Northfield in 1938 to continue the school’s work. Her husband, Henry (Harry) Millis, handled business management. Baker’s niece was a graduate of the National Kindergarten College of Evanston, Illinois, and quite prepared to continue her aunt’s work. 

By then Baker was living across the street from the school and active at an age when most people would be long retired. Her final years were marked by frail health. When she reached her 100th birthday on April 10, 1959, the milestone was celebrated at the hospital with family. She reached her 101st birthday and died on June 7, 1960. 

Baker in one interview looked back with satisfaction on her life’s work as she expressed her philosophy. “A pupil needs to wonder about a thing in order to learn about it. If one approach doesn’t bring a response, another must be tried to open up an interest. It is necessary to begin where the child is and to go on from there with the very next step.” 

Recalling pupils and their progress, she said, “I am happy.” 

The original house was razed in 1989 and replaced by a new administration building in 1990. Longtime workers have said they have heard Baker’s footsteps at the old and current building, with doors opening and closing and furniture moved. A video at the LBSA website even purports to show a ghostly figure on the staircase which was preserved from the original house and installed in the lobby of the administration building. 

Learn more about Laura Baker and LBSA at https://www.laurabaker.org/ 

Read Hvistendahl’s article at https://entertainmentguidemn.com/hh-apr12 

Read more about LBSA and Baker herself at southernminn.com 

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