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Prison Twine Manufacturing Plant


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

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “The City; The Prison Twine Factory,” Bismarck Tribune, August 8, 1901, p. 3.

“Legislative Notes,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, February 10, 1899, p. 2.

“The House; Prison Labor Question,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, January 13, 1899, p. 1.

“The Twine Plant,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, February 3, 1899, p. 5.

“History Of The North Dakota State Penitentiary,” "" , accessed on July 1, 2016; “Department Of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” "" , accessed on June 24, 2016.

“North Dakota Twine,” Ward County Reporter [Minot, ND], March 29, 1900, p. 1; “The Twine Plant,” Bismarck Tribune, March 26, 1900, p. 3; “The State Twine Plant,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, March 29, 1900, p. 2; “Bismarck’s Growth,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, April 6, p. 2; “Making Twine,” Bismarck Tribune, March 30, 1900, p. 3.

“Prison Twine Plant Is Making Money,” Bismarck Tribune, October 4, 1916, p. 1.

“Twine Production At State Pen Is Decreasing Rapidly,” Bismarck Tribune, July 24, 1948, p. 2.

“NODAK Baler Twine,” advertisement, New Salem Journal, June 29, 1955, p. 5.

“Binder,” "" , accessed on June 27, 2016.