Island of Refuge

Administration Building, Wisconsin Home of the Feeble-Minded, 1897. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

Administration Building, Wisconsin Home for the Feeble- Minded, 1897. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

The recent passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founding mother of the Special Olympics, reminds me of the progress we have made in how we perceive and interact with developmentally disabled people.  Shriver’s work was part of a larger movement to return these “special” people to the mainstream of society that many of them had been locked out of for decades.

Wisconsin began its segregation of the developmentally disabled and of those suffering from epilepsy in the 1890s. After years of debate and numerous revelations of the inhumane and often abusive care provided by local governments, the legislature established the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded.  Brutal as it sounds today, the term feeble-minded was accepted usage in the 19th century, when moron, imbecile and idiot were the clinically accepted headings under which degrees of intellectual disability were filed.

The Wisconsin Home was built on one thousand acres of wild parkland on the banks of the Chippewa River east of Chippewa Falls. The setting was truly idyllic, with fresh water springs, grassy meadows and groves of tall trees. The location reflected the not inaccurate belief that the country was a healthier place to live than the city. And it was isolated, away from large population centers. The reformers who founded the Home wanted it to be an island of refuge whose “inmates” would neither do harm nor be harmed.

"Inmates" at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded, 1900s. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

"Inmates" at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded, 1900s. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

Twenty formidible brick and stone buildings were in the original plan, later expanded to twice that number and more. The first inmate  crossed the threshold in June 1897. By October, twelve hundred were admitted.

Most were children of poverty, the offspring of parents without the means to care for a child with special needs, or orphans who, because of their disability, were not likely to be adopted by extended family or friends.  Fear was  a motivating factor. Parents and local officials feared that the slow-witted boy would mature into an unmanageable, dangerous man and the simple-minded girl would develop into a promiscuous breeder of more children just like her.

The humane, progressive, forward-thinking course was to sequester these youngsters on the island, train them to perform the simple tasks of farm labor, handicrafts and house keeping, and put them to work. They would raise and preserve nearly all the food they ate, build much of their furniture, make, mend and launder clothing, cook and clean, maintain the grounds and, as teenagers and older, care for younger inmates.  Given  useful work and a productive role, they would remain on the island for life.

As the initial training programs succeeded and were improved by the addition of  “special education” classes in the early 1900s,  they sowed the seeds of the Home’s demise.  If developmentally disabled people could be trained to function on the island, they could be trained to function off of it as well.

A 2009 Special Olympics champion.

A 2009 Special Olympics champion.

It took many years of slow progress in the law, medicine, education, civil rights  and, most importantly, in the attitude of  those of us who are not developmentally disabled for the “inmates” to be allowed to leave the island.  For that attitudinal change we owe much to Eunice Kennedy Shriver and countless other less-heralded activists.

The “inmates” of 1897 are today’s Special Olympians and on the island no more.

–Michael Goc

One Response to Island of Refuge

  1. Kathleen Martin says:

    My Grandmother, Lottie Flint, and her mother ( Mary E. White) both worked at the Northern Colony and Training School, circa 1904.
    I remember the stories my Grandmother told me of what life was like there as an attendant…..
    I look forward to reading your book.
    Thank you

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