Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled

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Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled
Established 1916
Construction Began 1918
Construction Ended 1919
Opened 1919
Current Status Active
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Union Grove, WI
Alternate Names
  • Southern Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-minded and Epileptics
  • Southern Wisconsin Colony and Training School
  • Southern Wisconsin Center


In 1913, the legislature appropriated $300,000 for the purchase of a site and the initial construction of buildings. The Board of Controls again visited various sites, and settled on the $53,937.50 purchase of 519 acres located two miles northwest of the village of Union Grove. They chose this site due to its location in the southeastern part of the state near the cities of Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Burlington. The land for Southern Wisconsin Center was initially purchased in 1916. Construction of the first buildings for the institution, which by law was known as Southern Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-minded and Epileptics, was begun in 1918.

With some help from prisoners, housed in barracks on the grounds, building construction was carried on with much difficulty. Due to the swampy conditions of the building site, roads were almost impassable, horses and equipment were mired, and the contractor was unable to obtain building materials. Quicksand, potholes, ravines and water all contributed to the difficulties and delays.

Finally on February 14, 1919, the institution was officially opened. The first buildings included Washington Cottage (later known as Cottage 2), a residential building for girls; Roosevelt Cottage (later known as Cottage 14), originally a building for employees; the superintendent's residence (now part of Southern Oaks School for Girls); Hoard Cottage, a farm cottage for boys; a barn, and two silos. These buildings formed the nucleus from which the institution began to operate.

Washington Cottage, in addition to housing the female patients, included the Administration offices, the laundry, the bakery, the sewing room, the hospital and the school. The institution power plant and water system were located in the farm cottage. Dr. H. C. Werner, the first Superintendent, lived in the residence until 1923 at which time he was succeeded by Dr. C. C. Atherton.

Early in 1922, the building program began to expand. Adams Cottage (Cottage 4), Jefferson Cottage (Cottage 5), Madison Cottage (Cottage 6), a refectory (dining hall) and a power plant were under construction at this time. These buildings were completed but not occupied for quite some time due to the lack of heat, light and power. As a temporary expedient two large boilers, one located east of Cottage 4 and one between Cottages 5 and 6, were installed outside. Tar paper shacks were built over the boilers to protect them from the elements. These temporary boilers were connected to the heating equipment in the new buildings, to supply heat to keep them from freezing and deteriorating until permanent boilers and engines could be installed in the new power plant. By August 1924 the new power plant was completed and heat, light and power was connected by steam conduit to the new buildings, allowing occupancy. Wooden sidewalks were constructed and laid between the new residential buildings and the refectory.

In 1921 the legal name of the institution was changed from "The Southern Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptics", suggestive of an asylum or almshouse, to "Southern Wisconsin Colony and Training School". This reflected the changing attitude regarding the developmentally disabled. For many years the accepted philosophy of social workers was based on the belief that the most that could be done for people with developmental disabilities was to provide them with comfortable quarters and train them to adjust to institution living. Gradually it was realized that the developmentally disabled could be educated and trained to do useful work, and become contributing members of society. Acceptance of this philosophy created a realization that the function of the institution was to educate and train rather than just provide food, clothing, shelter and little more.

Once the power plant was finished in 1924, other buildings were constructed at a rapid pace. A new employees' building was opened for occupancy in spring of 1925. This building was constructed in a lowland which was filled with approximately 3 to 3 1/2 feet of field rocks, covered by approximately a foot and a half of dirt. A new laundry and a horse barn were also completed in 1925. The horses were moved into the new barn from the east wing of the dairy barn, which allowed for the installation of calf pens in the area vacated. Patient labor was utilized in the operation of both the farm and the dairy facilities. The use of patient labor served a dual purpose; primarily it provided a form of training in tasks which would prepare the patient for eventual discharge and secondly, the labor was badly needed in the planting, tending and harvesting of crops and production of dairy products which were used extensively in the kitchen throughout the institution. In 1925, after Buildings 4, 5, 6, the laundry, and the refectory were opened and occupied, the bakery was moved from Building 2 to the new refectory and laundry equipment was moved to the new laundry.

The Depression era brought about many efforts to cut expenditures to a bare minimum, without sacrificing essential patient services. Stories were related by former employees at the time of using pencils down to a 1" stub, which then needed to be turned in before a new pencil would be issued. Stationary costs were reduced by the use of the back sides of memoranda and letters for the reply, or even for the issuance of new communications. But the building expansion continued.

During 1928 the greenhouse was built, complete with a heating unit. The hog house was enlarged to contain twelve more pens and a slaughter house was added on the west end. At this same time a new Hospital and Infirmary (later renamed Cottages 12 and 13), and Building 1 (Lincoln Cottage) were under construction. In the construction of the Hospital and Infirmary, just enough black dirt was taken off the surface to get down to hard solid soil for foundation footings. After the concrete foundations were poured, they were 9' out of the ground on the west side and 9 ½' on the east side. After the completion of these buildings it required 44,000 yards of dirt to complete the filling to its present grade. These buildings were opened for occupancy in early 1930.

The following progress was made in 1932: a complete telephone system was installed with a central on-grounds switchboard; nine garages were built to house the institution trucks and cars; a bull house with an exercise yard was completed; the north and south gate pillars were erected; and the service building, housing a carpenter shop and a machine shop, was completed. In 1933 a dairy building , machine shed, and a blacksmith shop were constructed with the aid of C.W.A. workers. Construction on the new granary was started in the fall of 1934, and completed with the help of W.P.A. in 1935.

In the spring of 1936 construction was started on Building 3 (Grant Cottage) with a connecting link to Building Four (Adams Cottage), which housed a central kitchen. A kitchen and dining room between Building 5 (Jefferson Cottage) and Building 6 (Madison Cottage) was also under construction at this time. Prior to the new dining rooms and kitchens, patients had to walk to their meals in all kinds of weather. The patients who could not walk had to have their meals carried from the central refectory back to the wards, where it usually arrived in a less than palatable condition. The new kitchens and dining facilities were completed, equipped, and occupied in the early spring of 1938.

The lack of manpower created by World War II caused many difficulties in the operation of the institution. These difficulties were eased considerably by the hiring of "conscientious objectors". Many of these individuals objected to military duty on religious grounds, and very few of them had any training in the care of people with developmental disabilities. The lack of training was overcome by the devotion to duty of the workers and their willingness to work long hours.

In January, 1944, the institution employees living in the employee building were moved out so it could be used for tubercular patients. The Hotel Shepard in Union Grove (now known as the Hotel Chartier) was leased for three years by the State and redecorated to be occupied by a large number of the vacated employees. Construction of a T.B. building was completed by the end of the year, but it was at first used as a new employee building. At the expiration of the Hotel lease, the T.B. patients were moved into the new building and the employees were all moved back into the original employees buildin

Construction of additional facilities was suspended during the war, however a great deal of planning for the future was done during this period. In 1950 Wilson Cottage (Cottage 7) was opened as a temporary facility for educable boys. In 1951 construction was started on "Central Building". This building, consisting of Jackson Cottage (Cottage 8), McKinley Cottage (Cottage 9), Cleveland Cottage (Cottage 10), and Taft Cottage (Cottage 11), was completed in 1954. Cottages 8 and 9 were occupied by totally dependent boys, while Cottages 10 and 11 were occupied by totally dependent girls.

Atherton Hall, named after the deceased superintendent, was completed in 1954. This building (currently The Robert E. Ellsworth Southeastern Women's Center) was designed to house 250 employees. In 1957, the west wing of Atherton was converted to be used by the Administrative Offices. Many other projects were either completed, started or planned during the mid 50's. Plans were made for the school building (CRSP) in 1954, and construction was completed in 1957. Contracts were awarded for a 100,000 gallon water tower and the institution roads were surfaced during this period.

During the winter of 1961-1962 an outbreak of Shigella Dysentary occurred which attracted nationwide attention. Numerous reporters, representing newspapers throughout the country, and representatives of the major press services descended on the institution. Thousands of words regarding the epidemic were written and broadcast on both radio and television. Plans for the new 120 bed hospital were accelerated and ground was broken for the new building in the Fall of 1962. Wallace Hospital initially consisted of a reception center, an intensive care unit, a sub-acute unit, a chronic care unit, an isolation unit, and a physical medicine and rehabilitation unit. The services provided included medical, surgical and pathology services; nursing services; radiology; EEG-EKG; pharmacy; clinical laboratory; occupational therapy; physical therapy; nursing education; medical records and dental services.[1]