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Excerpts taken from indexcenterhistory, United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historical Places Continuation Sheet: State Public School, Sparta, Monroe County, Wisconsin Section 8 pages 38-52 and La Crosse Tribune, 1960, Written by Nora Magalee.
An act of legislature in 1885 established the Wisconsin Child Care Center in Sparta, Wisconsin. The Legislature set aside $30,000 for this project. The State Board of Supervisors selected 165 acres in the city of Sparta. The facility was named the “State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children.” Only three buildings were built in the beginning.
In 1886 the Child Care Center became under the control of State Board of Supervisor of Wisconsin Charitable, Reformatory and Penal Institutions. Four years after opening the school had 2,221 children who had come through its doors. Some stayed for a few weeks, others for months, or even years. Many children were placed in homes. Some were indentured to work for families, others were fostered out, while the most fortunate were adopted by loving families.
The school was only meant to be a holding place for children who had been neglected, abandoned, or were needy. The ages of children who were admitted to the Child Care Center at this time ranged in age from 3 years to 16 years. It was important for children to receive education for the mind, body and soul. While at the Child Center, children received a regular school education. School was from kindergarten to grade nine. Older girls learned cooking and sewing. Older boys were taught farming. Children reaching sixteen years old, who had not been placed in a home, were sent back to the area they came from. All children admitted to the Child Care Center became dependents of the Board of Supervisors. Their parents were no longer their legal guardians. Because of this, teachers and matrons were carefully selected to help provide a home-like atmosphere for the children housed at the Care Center.
Sparta was chosen for its attractive location, good water, well-drained soil and proximity to the railroad. The fact that the land already had a small farm on it was also a plus. With a few small improvements the farm was used by the school. By placing the Child Care Center in Sparta, it helped the local economy by providing jobs and opening trade.
By 1887 the school had already run out of space to hold the growing number of children in its care. Between 1887 and 1889 two more cottages were built. Also added was an administration building, a school building, a separate laundry, an engineer’s residence, and a boiler room. The number of the classrooms doubled to six by 1909. In 1889, the Child Care Center bought and remodeled a building to be used as a hospital. Nine years later, in 1998 an additional hospital was built. Even with all of the buildings in the early years, the buildings or residents’ cottages as they were called housed more than twenty, and sometimes between fifty and sixty children at one time. All these children were cared for by one matron. Children slept in large rooms called dormitories. With such close quarters, it is easy to see why diseases spread quickly throughout the school.
By 1922 Legislation authorized the admitting of children with treatable handicaps. By June of 1920 there were 256 children who lived at the Child Care Center. Reports were sent to the State Board of Control that the school was overcrowded. Part of the trouble was that many of the children who had been boarded out or placed out were being returned to the Center. Most would then remain until they turned eighteen years old. Unfortunately, the actual adoption of children was very small compared to the number of children that were coming into the Center.
Many older children were “placed out” or indentured. This was because they were helpful for farming or housework. After a child turned eighteen years old (in some cases twenty-one) the foster parents brought them back to the Child Care Center and paid $50.00 for the use of the child. Most requests for children were granted. The State Control Board was to check on the well-being of every child that was placed out. This was to happen at least two times a year. However, this did not always happen. Yet, the State Board remained the child’s legal guardian, just in case the child needed to be removed from a bad home.
The Child Care Center officially closed its doors on July 1, 1976, after serving the state for 89 years. The Child Care Center and its remaining buildings were sold to the city of Sparta for $650,000. Children remaining at the center at the time of closing were placed in foster care. Some of the buildings have been demolished to make way for progress, a few are still in use. The Sparta Municipal Golf Course was constructed on the area which had been used as farmland to feed the hundreds of children who had lived at the Child Care Center. Amid the golf course there is a haunting reminder of what the land used to be, the Child Cemetery is surrounded by a white fence and trees.
Some were orphaned, while others were born to families without resources to care for them. Some spent their entire childhood here, while others lived here only briefly. This cemetery is the final resting place for 305 children who were unclaimed at their deaths, many of whom passed away during epidemics of influenza, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and polio in the days before vaccines were available. In keeping with the custom of the time, their graves were identified only by number. Yet the memory of these precious children lives on and in that loving spirit they are now given their names for all time.
Some memories from people associated with Wisconsin Child Center:
According to Mr. Frank Tubbs who lives in Eau Clair now states, “He was 8 years old when he came to Sparta in 1928. When he was 13 years old a couple adopted him. He says they wanted a slave not a son. “I worked on the farm for 5 dollars a month in the summer and my room and board, during the winter. . .. I had to buy my own clothes and anything else I needed out of that,” he said. The state sent a social worker to check living conditions. But they called ahead, and the couple sent him to a room. Thankfully an older brother rescued me when I was 16 years old," stated Mr. Tubbs.
Mr. Robert Schwartzlow stated, “Him and his brother, John, were brought here in 1938. Robert was a year and a half old, and John was 4 months. His brother and he were playing baseball when Robert had to go to the main cottage. They told him he was going somewhere. He explains that he was not adopted but shipped out as a farm hand to Deerfield in 1949. He worked on the farm until he was 16 years old. Later he said, “I was their slave. They were mean to me. They wouldn’t let me keep any mail, or anything that came from Sparta, they tore it up”. Even though the memories are unclear, he knows the “welfare” took him and his brother away from his parents. He doesn’t remember much about life at the Child Care Center. “It was a just a place the welfare had to put us. We didn’t go there by choice. I didn’t have any run-ins with anybody and for the most part we were treated alright and fairly. Although there was a fence around it, which always kind of reminded me of prison”. “Twice in the years, I drove by there (in Sparta) and it gave me goose bumps,” stated Mr. Schwartzlow.
After World War II, the school changed its name to the Wisconsin Child Center. After 89 years of operation, the Wisconsin Child Center closed its doors. The center, complete with buildings, was sold back to the City of Sparta for $650,000. The residents were placed in foster homes. On December 1, 1974, there was a debate in the government to keep or shut down the Wisconsin Child Center and according to one of the center’s 98 employees, who asked not to be named, said "The Child Center should be completely overhauled, including a one-third reduction in the staff", stated the employee. On March 3, 1975, According to Senator Thomas Harnish of Neillsville, whom was a committee member, stated at Sparta, “This institution has been without a superintendent since June of last year, which is indicative of the kind of support given the child center by that department”, stated Senator Harnisch. On April 28, 1975, According to Senator Harnisch states, "To me this is no more than a witch hunt. The cost differential between the Wisconsin Child Center and private institutions is not there".
During the years of its operation, the school faced many epidemics and over 300 children died while residing on the 223-acre compound. The infirmary where most of these children died is still standing today on Osborne Drive and was given to the Boys & Girls Club of Sparta from the last owner. The building is used each year as an elaborate haunted house attraction to help raise money to support life-enhancing programs for the Boys & Girls Club.