This April 1 when the barricades come down allowing access throughout the Winnebago County Community Park on County Y in Oshkosh, a very special season will commence. The Park will turn 50 years old this summer!
Here’s a little history of the site where Winnebago County Community Park now sits. Formerly the site was part of a Winnebago County complex of institutions that served various populations throughout the County.
Winnebago County’s asylum, county home and poor farm cared for the mentally ill and indigent. The institution was known by different names at various times as Winnebago County asylum, County Home and Poor farm (circa 1873); the County Asylum and Winnebago County Poor Farm (1893); Winnebago County Asylum Farm, Winnebago County Asylum for the Chronically Insane, County Home (1913); Winnebago County Hospital (1957), Pleasant Acres (1961); and the Park View Health Center (1973). County homes had their origin in the poorhouses which were created by the Wisconsin poorhouse law enacted in 1849. Poorhouses were managed by a Superintendent of the Poor who was subject to the direction and control of the County Board of Supervisors. Early poorhouses were often repositories for social outcasts and indigents where little effort was made to segregate criminals, the insane, orphans, the aged, and the physically disabled. The recognition of the deplorable conditions in poorhouses by the State Board of Charities and Reform and the gradual movement throughout the United States to establish more sophisticated public relief programs, changed the role of poorhouses to providing care mainly for aged indigents and seriously ill persons unable to live alone and lacking relatives willing or able to provide a home for them.
In March of 1865, the Board of Trustees of Winnebago County created a county-based program to care for the poor. At the time this care was often extended to those deemed to be insane, feebleminded, epileptic, blind, or deaf, as well as unwed expectant mothers. Disadvantaged elderly and children were also considered eligible for help. The program was administered by three supervisors initially known as the Poor Commissioners of Winnebago County. The County Board first rented a house on Pearl Street in Oshkosh that had previously been used as a poor house by the city. Later that same year, the Poor Commissioners purchased farm land to construct a new facility in the unincorporated community of Winnebago.
By 1871, the county completed construction of the Winnebago County Poor Farm. While there is some uncertainty, it appears that only one main building was constructed and that it served as both a poor house and an insane asylum. In addition, the Poor Farm site also included barns and sheds for livestock and farm machinery. Physically capable patients of the asylum provided labor for the farm, producing crops and dairy products that were either consumed by the residents or sold to offset the operating costs of the institutions. In 1882/1883, another wing was added to the brick building to further separate the poor from the mentally insane. At this point, following 1881 legislation establishing a new system for the care of the chronically insane by counties, the institutions began to become more distinctly separate.
In 1893, a separate building for the County Asylum, designed by local architect William Waters, was constructed at the cost of $60,000. Subsequently, “Poor Farm” referred to the farm itself, the new building was referred to as the “County Asylum” and the old building the “County Poor House.” In 1900, the Trustees of the Asylum requested funds from the County Board to enlarge the Asylum dining room, increase storage, establish a hospital operating room, and construct a large barn for stock and hay. The newly constructed barn burned down the following year. Two more barns were built and then burned in succession.
Until 1902, when a disagreement occurred between the county board and Trustees of the Asylum, one superintendent oversaw the operations at all institutions. A separation of roles occurred when the County Board elected one man to assume the role of superintendent of the Poor House only, and the former joint supervisor became the superintendent of the County Asylum. The threat of smallpox prompted the creation of an isolation ward at the Poor Farm in 1909 where all new inmates were screened by the County Physician prior to acceptance for residency. In 1912, the County Board began using an unoccupied portion of the County Poor House as a tuberculosis sanatorium. This practice continued until 1915, when the construction of Sunny View Tuberculosis Sanatorium (built on the same property of the Poor House and County Asylum) was completed.
In 1913, the Poor Farm was renamed the Winnebago County Asylum Farm, the Asylum was renamed the Winnebago County Asylum for the Chronically Insane, and the Poor House was renamed the County Home. During the 1930s, several expansion projects were completed on the campus: a heat plant and creamery were added, bathrooms were remodeled, and two detention wings were added within the County Asylum. On June 18, 1944, the County Home was struck by lightning and caught fire resulting in a complete loss of the structure. After the fire, residents of the County Home were housed in the County Asylum. In 1945, a new asylum building was proposed by the County Board with plans to renovate the existing building into the County Home for the Aged/Retired. Due to financial difficulties and conflicting visions for the new building, construction for the new asylum did not begin until 1950. The new asylum, renamed the Winnebago County Hospital, was completed in 1957 and included a guidance center.
The old asylum building, now used solely by the County Home, was renovated and included a beauty parlor, barber shop, and bowling alley. In 1961, the County Home was renamed Pleasant Acres. Even though the County Home had undergone extensive renovations, problems with termites, a cracked foundation, and antiquated plumbing caused the State Department of Public Welfare to declare the facility in violation of safety standards. With repair costs soaring, the County Board decided to construct a new building. Construction began in 1966 and was completed in 1967. In 1968, the old County Home burned down during demolition.
In 1965, the County Board decided that the farm was not financially viable and auctioned off the livestock and equipment. The buildings were demolished in 1968, and the County Board voted to transfer the Poor Farm land to the jurisdiction of the Conservation, Park and Recreation Committee. A new park (Winnebago County Community Park) was created on the land.
In 1973 the Winnebago County Hospital (originally the County Asylum), Pleasant Acres (formally the County Home), and the Guidance Center (part of the Winnebago County Hospital), were renamed the Park View Health Center. For many years Park View consisted of the Rehabilitation Pavilion and Pleasant Acres and served as the County Nursing Home for individuals with short-term rehabilitation and long-term needs including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric diagnoses, and developmentally disabled individuals who required nursing home care. In 2006/2007, a new building was constructed to replace the aging facilities.
Wisconsin Historical Records Survey Division of Community Service Programs Work Projects Administration. County Government in Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, 1942, volume III.
Koppelberger, G. A History of the Winnebago County Poor Farm. [Oshkosh, Wisconsin: s.n., 1985?]
Goff, Charles D., and Martin Gruberg. A History of Winnebago County Government. Oshkosh, Wisconsin: Martin Gruber, 1998.
Photos courtesy of WI State Historical Society website and Austin Fredrick.