Menomonie, Wisconsin History/bstaab22

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The Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane was an Asylum which took a significant role in the society during the late 1800s through the 1900s. The Asylum was a safe haven for the mentally ill and was an influential component to the town of Menomonie as a whole.

Dunn County Potter's Field where some Asylum patients were buried.

Building the Asylum[edit]

Building Characteristics[edit]

On February 4, 1891 the Dunn County board appointed a building commission with the responsibility of building a Asylum. Within a month after deciding to build the asylum, the asylum site was selected and purchased from the Knapp, Stout & Co. for $6000.00. Hackworthy and Hoeser, contractors from Appleton, Wisconsin, were selected to construct the building on their bid of $35,783.00. Plumbing and gas were done for $2,480.00 by J.A. Trane of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Local contractor F.E. Peas constructed the root cellar, laundry and ice house for $2000.00. Heating and lighting were contracted for $7, 405.00. Last but not least "Sanitary Closets" and two "Vented Urinals" were purchased at the cost of $900.00. The asylum was situated about one and a half miles East of Menomonie in a town called Red Cedar, just east of Bullard Hill. The Dunn County Poor Home and Poor Farm were located east of the Asylum, both were under the same management. The length of the building was 235 feet and the width 120 feet. It was heated by hot water, lighted by gas and had a thorough system of ventilation. The Asylum also contain a large amount of farmland alongside it for the patients and others to work off of. There was much time and effort put into the building of the Asylum. Even the landscaping was carefully thought out. In 1892 the Dunn County News reported that H.W.S. Cleveland, a landscape expert, was in charge of the asylum landscaping. Farmers in the timbered portions of the county were asked to select one tree from the following: Elm, Basswood, White Ash and Boxelder, and deliver them to the superintendent of the asylum. Specific instructions were noted: Trees should be from three to five inches in diameter, root should be fifteen to thirty inches long. Trim the tree not too close and cut off at nine feet long. Protect the roots from sun and wind when delivering. [1]

The Asylum Now[edit]

Dunn County Potter's Field where many of the Insane Asylum's patients were buried.

The Asylum was an impressive and attractive building that served the community for over 50 years. The building was closed in 1971, replaced by a new building that served as the Dunn County Health Center until recently, when a group of care center buildings were constructed on the property. The vacated health center building will soon hold the offices of other county agencies. [2] Many of the patients were buried at Dunn County Potter's Field which is located north of US Highway 12 and Wisconsin 29, about one mile east of the city limits of Menomonie. The graves are marked by pieces of metal shaped into crosses. There are no name plates as not all of the bodies were identified or put on record.


John Charles[edit]

The man who was selected to design and build the Asylum was named John Charles. John Charles came to Wisconsin in 1869 from England, settling in the southern part of the state, Mineral Point. He designed the plans for the county asylum and when through with that work became identified with the business interests of Menomonie. John was an architect for the manual training school and has furnished plans for many of the principal buildings in the city. In June, 1896, he was appointed architect for the state board of control, in which capacity he has charge of construction of all buildings erected by the board. It is said that he even had an office on Main Street.[2]

Patients and Asylum Life[edit]

Daily Life[edit]

The asylum soon became a self-supporting institution with its own farm. Three men were employed on the farm and in the summer were assisted by trustworthy patients to care for the animals or work in the field and garden. The extra milk and farm crops were sold to local markets.[1] In 1924 there was a net profit of $4,412.43 from farm and garden produce. It is worthwhile to note that both the asylum and the farm, though not politically correct by the standards of today, met a critical social need in their time.


There were no in house Doctors, but local doctor, Dr. N.L. Howison , would visit twice a week and was on call for any emergencies. Dr. Howison lived in Menomonie and lived by one of his prevailing principles that they were there to provide “healthful work” at the institutions so that their minds “could be directed to normal channels.”[3]

Treatments at This Time[edit]

Patient Treatment[edit]

Evidence abounds of inhumane treatment of the mentally ill throughout history. And though it’s easy to judge early interventions harshly, taking a look back can help us keep an evolving field in perspective. Asylums were places where people with mental disorders could be placed, allegedly for treatment, but also often to remove them from the view of their families and communities. Overcrowding in these institutions led to concern about the quality of care for institutionalized people and increased awareness of the rights of people with mental disorders. Even today, people with mental illness might experience periods of inpatient treatment reminiscent of the care given in asylums, but society exerts much greater regulatory control over the quality of care patients get in these institutions. Moral treatment was the overarching therapeutic foundation for the 18th century. But even at that time, physicians had not fully separated mental and physical illness from each other. As a result, some of the treatments in those days were purely physical approaches to ending mental disorders and their symptoms. These included ice water baths, physical restraints, and isolation.[4] That is why it was such a blessing that The Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane decided to take an open door approach and to allow less restraint on their patients.

Form of restraint often fored upono patients.
Physical restraint was often forced upon patients at this time.

Patients treated at Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane[edit]

A main reason the board decided to build the asylum is because there were 49 Dunn County mental patients who were being sent off to other counties to receive care because they did not receive that care necessary to them in their county. On February 10,1891, at an adjourned meeting of the board, a special committee found that the present system of keeping the chronic insane in county asylums was inaugurated in this state in 1881, and the rate for maintenance per patient being fixed at $3 per week. As an encouragement for the counties to try the new system, the state agreed to pay $1.50 for the local support of each patient.[2] The Asylum chose an open door path. The History of Dunn County reveals that the committee visited the asylums in other counties and they found that the best results were obtained in a building large enough to accommodate 100 inmates, with a central building and two wings.  The open door plan was urged, and the patients were given a minimum amount of restraint. The Dunn County News, in its Semi-Centennial Edition in 1910 said in regard to the Asylum: "Humanity and economy- tender consideration, enlightened methods of treatment, and efficient business management- these are the cardinal characteristics which have made the Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane a source of relief for hundreds of unfortunates and a means of profit to the taxpayers of the county. They are a combination of qualities in public service rarely found developed in so high a degree, and have placed the local institution well to the forefront among those of its kind in the United States. "The primary object of the institution is not to make money but-to quote the words of a former trustee--" to provide comfortable wholesome home where the unfortunate charges placed in our care may be made happy."[5]The Dunn County Insane Asylum's first patient was received on February 10, 1892. It cost less than $3.00 per week to maintain a patient in the asylum. By October of 1892 there were 111 patients in the asylum, 48 from Dunn County.

External Links[edit]


Wisconsin Library

The Dunn County News

Everyday Health

Dunn County Potter's Field


  1. 1.0 1.1 R Vann, M. (2014, May 7). The 10 Worst Mental Health Treatments in History. Retrieved November 7, 2015d November 6, 2015
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 es of Yesteryear. Retrieved November 6, 2015
  3. Where the Wild Rice Grows by Lynch and Russell, 1996
  4. R Vann, M. (2014, May 7). The 10 Worst Mental Health Treatments in History. Retrieved November 7, 2015
  5. Russell, J. (2012, October 28). Scenes of Yesteryear: Asylum provided a home for the afflicted. Retrieved November 6, 2015