Abbott House Through the Years
A major depression, eight years of drought; children suffering because of the catastrophes… a gentlewoman who was the wife of the publisher of the local paper; a young Episcopalian rector…
These were the catalysts which brought about the founding of Abbott House in 1939. The agency was the first departure from the communal type home typically referred to as “orphanages” by the general public. It represented the ground breaking ideals set forth in the 1930 White House Conference on Children and Youth.
The general business collapse of 1929 and years of drought hit South Dakota particularly hard. In 1939 the economic base of the state was shaken and family units either pulled together or divided, unable to bear the strain. In the midst of these troubled times, a group of Mitchell citizens began to look beyond the harassments of the present to the real victims of the turmoil… the children. Not only did these individuals dream; they set about doing something important.
“Determination and driving power came out strongly in his young and sensitive face when he talked about what he wants for the emotionally troubled and neglected children of South Dakota… As it is now, a child who is left homeless or who must be taken from an undesirable home, may be declared delinquent and find himself in a reform school with boys and girls who have already learned many things which are better left out of a child’s education… South Dakota is one of the states which has been through so many years of drought that it is hard to urge on the people the undertaking of even necessary work like this, they simply have not the taxable values to meet demands of state government. This is a misfortune in which the rest of the nation has a stake, for the children of today make up the nation of the future. They do not remain in South Dakota; they may be your neighbors wherever you live in days to come. ”
So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt (in her syndicated column in 1939) as she described her meeting with one of the Agency’s first Board members, Rev. J. O. Patterson.
Sparked by founder, Mrs. Mabel Ronald, and predicated upon the inspiration of Grace Abbott, the agency was to be a memorial to Grace Abbott’s pioneer social policy accomplishments. Grace Abbott, an often quoted author and colleague of Jane Adams at Hull House, was an outspoken advocate for children. Among her accomplishments was shaping the original Child Labor Law and then appointments by President Wilson to represent social policy interest nationally and as a United States representative to the League of Nations. President Harding selected Grace Abbott as the Chief of the newly formed Children’s Bureau in 1919 and she served in that role until returning to an academic role at the University of Chicago in 1934. Subsequently, she participated as a member of the group which wrote the landmark Social Security Act which became law in 1935. Grace Abbott died in 1939 before ever seeing the agency that bears her name but early “corporate membership” in the struggling agency included her colleagues at the University of Chicago and Hull House as well as her equally renowned sister Edith Abbott.
The first Abbott House was a stately 1900’s home known as the Silsby House which was located on three lots at 508 East 5th in Mitchell. In the $5,000 home were offices for the director, his living quarters, an infirmary and bath, kitchen, and dining room and children’s living room on the first floor. On the second floor was the housemother’s room, four bedrooms and two baths. The third floor consisted of a sewing room, library, boy’s workroom and housekeeper’s room and bath. A special feature of the house was an area in the old cupola which was referred to as the “doll’s room.”
Over 1000 people attended the open house and dedication for Abbott House. Grand Island, Nebraska Mayor O. A. Abbott, brother of Grace Abbott, was master of ceremonies for the dedication dinner.
A two day fair was given in 1940 for the benefit of Abbott House. The event combined an auto show, style show, and a pageant; climaxed by the crowning of a king and queen of the festival. This was a gala social event where dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies in waiting, debutantes and their escorts were a part of festivities. The identities of the king and queen were kept a secret until the grand march, which was accompanied by an orchestra.
A second fair was given in the following year as a money raising event. This time the queen of the festival was chosen from a popularity contest which entries from 39 towns. Governor Harlan Bushfield was on hand for the coronation ceremony.
The agency began with a $450 down payment on a house and an annual budget of $6,200 financed by donations. By 1940 the budget had increased to $7,000. The first director was recruited by a national search through the Child Welfare League of America. The man chosen was Allen Seabrook, who had a Master’s degree from the University of Toronto, L.Th. from Trinity College, and a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. His wife was also an accredited social worker who would become part of the Abbott House staff.
After two years Rev. Seabrook had to cut his pay because of financial shortages. In his fourth year, the Board of Directors raised his salary to $200 per month but Seabrook left the agency to return to the ministry. In later years he returned to child care and retired as the Executive Director of an Iowa agency. Seabrook was replaced by Robert Hahn who came to Mitchell from Indiana. Mr. Hahn left the agency to return to the family publishing business in 1946.
On December 18, 1945, a fire broke out in the furnace room and the old house was destroyed. That night 13 children barely escaped the infernal that totally consumed the old house which was far from fire safe. The children were placed in every available home that would open its doors.
Temporary Abbott House quarters were established in the “old Scallin home” located at 421 N. Lawler during Christmas week. Immediately a fund drive was launched to raise funds to build a “fireproof” children’s home.
Newspapers and radio stations all over South Dakota and in Iowa assisted with fund raising. Contributions came from all over to rebuild a children’s home. Meanwhile, a circus was given as a benefit in 1947; Legion post and auxiliaries all over South Dakota sponsored fund raising events for Abbott House; there were bake sales and benefits held by clubs and organizations in every corner of the state; Don McNeil, of the Breakfast Club fame in Chicago, gave a pitch on his radio show.
Unfortunately, the “war years” created additional problems for Abbott House by causing family dislocation and additional referrals. This was also a time when building materials and labor shortages delayed construction and increased costs.
Shortly before Christmas 1950, furnace problems forced the movement of the children into a nearly complete facility across from Dakota Wesleyan University. Building a new “state of the art” child care center for 15 children cost the agency $64,000. Insurance money from the fire, the sale of the temporary quarters, and contributions enabled the agency to make a debt free start in the new building.
From 1946 until 1973, Perry Pickering was the Director of the agency. He would oversee the construction of the new facility and provided leadership in child welfare concerns for South Dakota. During Pickering’s tenure the agency began to expand fund raising and professionalized services.
Although Abbott House was not the oldest agency in South Dakota, it became the first “licensed” children’s home in 1955. Until 1973, Abbott House was considered to be the first “receiving Home” in the state. It cared for boys and girls in residence between the ages of 5 to 13 and also provided an extensive foster care program for 30 children. Children were placed for adoption by the agency.
In the 1960’s the growth of the state’s public service delivery system forced the Abbott House to relinquish foster care and adoption services. By the late 1960’s the agency was encouraged to abandon the program for younger children because it was anticipated that group care would no longer be the treatment of choice for younger children.
In 1973 the Board of Directors closed Abbott House for three months in anticipation of a revised program. In that year Abbott House became the first treatment program for adolescent girls in the state. These events coincided with the recruitment of the agency’s fourth Director, Ernie Peters.
In 1977 the Abbott House School was added to the program, in 1982-1983 Abbott House initiated a demonstration project for the State of South Dakota called Project Home Find to assist in the recruitment and training of foster parents and in 1984-1988 the agency provided family services through the New Family Center.
The South Dakota Children’s Aid Foundation was incorporated in 1984 to assure attention to the financial development needs of Abbott House. On an annual basis the Foundation provides the funding necessary to assure that our children are provided the quality of care expected by Abbott House.
During the summer of 1987, Abbott House expanded its physical plant from 6,400 square feet to 10,000 square feet with the expansion of the building to the North at a cost of $155,000.
Abbott House is unique among the older, established children’s agencies because it never suffered the trauma of needing to drastically readjust its purpose of existence. Rather, it always saw itself as a support system which would shore up and strengthen family units. When that job proved impossible, Abbott House sought permanent family life in some alternative form for every child. It was always the goal to remain small and to emphasize quality child care over less personal and inflexible alternatives. Abbott House never compromised in its commitment to the individual child. These were the ideals expressed by the 1930 White House Conference on Children and Youth and the challenge of Grace Abbott when she said of her efforts in defense of children,
“The road leads uphill to the very end.”
For 75 years Abbott House has provided residential treatment services for youth ages nine to seventeen who have suffered trauma and abuse. Children come to Abbott House with physical and emotional scars and the tragic burden of being disregarded. Without help now, many of these young children perpetuate the cycle of violence and punish themselves indefinitely for the tragedy that was placed on their shoulders. It is a place where children get another chance to turn the abuse and victimization of their past into experiences they live with, but that do not overwhelm their lives. Abbott House strives to provide premier services for youth and their families.
Abbott House provides girls with a second chance at youth—a place of hope and recovery