During its first session in 1858 the Minnesota State Legislature established the first of several schools for the training and care of citizens who suffered mental and physical disabilities and for children who were unable to care for themselves. The first school opened in Fairbault in 1863, after five years of delay due to lack of funds. Called an "Asylum," later an "Institute," and now an "Academy," its students were those who were blind and deaf. Separate schools were later established here for the blind, the deaf and the mentally deficient. In 1885, a State School for Dependent and Neglected Children opened in Owatonna. While it closed in 1970, the Fairbault schools continue to function.
The schools are similar in both style and plan to buildings found at Minnesota state hospitals and correctional facilities. A typical complex included separate buildings for administration, classrooms, gymnasium, a hospital dormitories, and service facilities such as a power plant, a laundry, and farm buildings. The farms allowed the schools to be partially self-sufficient. The schools were established by law to provide the students with activities and training, while protecting them from the "slights and rebuffs" of the outside world.
The first clinical psychologist to be employed in a mental retardation institute in the United States was at the Fairbault State School. A.R.T. Wylie was that pioneer in the field of mental health research.
Several of the school buildings in Fairbault and Owatonna are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The school complex at Owatonna continues to serve the public. The buildings are used by the city, providing space for administrative offices, an art center, a museum interpreting the state school, and other uses.