DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Prison twine manufacturing plant

August 8, 2017 – The State Penitentiary in Bismarck is a necessary evil. We wish there was no need for a prison, but criminals exist and must be arrested. The penitentiary was intended as a place where convicts should repent and experience rehabilitation. But a question arose after the State Penitentiary opened in 1885: How can governments really transform criminals into productive citizens?

Just putting inmates behind bars and having them do nothing did not appear to be effective in improving lives. Accordingly, prison authorities put convicts to work – doing hard labor. Later, the most skilled made horse harnesses. The next idea was to have convicts make bricks.

Eventually, the idea arose in the 1890s in Minnesota and other states to have prisoners make twine for horse pulled grain binder machines. Binder twine was made from sisal or Manila hemp and was used in grain binders to mechanically tie bundles of wheat or oats. The harvester/binder machine cut the grain, bound it into bundles with twine, then dropped bundles to the ground ready to be placed in shocks for drying prior to threshing.

A North Dakota commentator wrote that a state twine manufacturing plant “would prevent prisoners from wasting their days in idleness; [and] teach them habits of industry … besides creating a product for which there will be an increasing demand.”

Accordingly, in 1899, the N.D. Legislature authorized a State Binder Twine Plant, and soon three buildings were constructed to house materials and the twine-making machinery. The Prison Binder Twine Plant opened in 1900.

On this date in 1901, the Bismarck Tribune reported that the “prison twine factory has done a fine business,” selling “all the twine it had on hand” and that the penitentiary’s inmates were working industriously.

By 1916, the prison twine plant was actually making money for the institution, selling twine for slightly less than brand-name competitors.

Binder twine sold well until the late 1940s when new-fangled custom combines began displacing threshing machines, allowing farmers to skip bundling grain. Consequently, the North Dakota twine plant switched production in the 1950s to making baler twine, used to tie hay bales and straw bales, marketing it as NODAK brand baler twine, commonly called “prison twine.”

The Prison Binder Twine Plant continued making twine until 1970, when a cataclysmic fire destroyed it. The Penitentiary and prisoners unrepentantly remained.

Dr. Steve Hoffbeck teaches at MSU Moorhead History Department.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org.