Island of Refuge Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled


Island of Refuge is a story of heroes from 1897 - 1997.  Not the military or athletic sort, but of the slow, the lame, the stammerers, and those who fell to the floor in epileptic spasms.  It tells the story of the feeble-minded, the mentally retarded, the physically and developmentally disabled, some of who never rose from their beds.

Like all heroes, they did great deeds.  They milked cows, created needlework art, earned merit badges as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts;  simple tasks for  most people, but difficult for those with a lesser share of strength and skill.

Most of all, they learned to live with their disabilities and with the system of care the people of Wisconsin provided for them.  Their heroism consisted of performing the chores of daily life, in learning to survive inside an institution, and for some in more recent times, growing able to live beyond its walls.  The fortunate were able to come to terms with their disabilities.

Island of Refuge is also a story of the caregivers.  They are the cottage attendants and farmers, teachers and doctors, therapists and social workers who implemented the philosophy of care for the developmentally disabled as it evolved over a century.

The title, Island of Refuge, is an adaptation of the phrase "cities of refuge" coined by Dr. Isaac Kerlin, on of the founders of the institutional care for the developmentally disabled in the United Sates and the mentor of Dr. Alfred Wilmarth, the first superintendent of the Wisconsin Home.  For Wilmarth and nearly everyone else in Wisconsin at the time, the Home was to be an island, easy to get to, but nearly impossible to leave.  It was also to be a refuge where those unable to cope with the world into which they were born could lead safe, simple, and productive lives.

Island of Refuge owes its life to a corps of staff volunteers who decided that the history of the institution should be preserved and who devoted many hours to research and collect source material; to friends who loaned papers, documents and photos; to former residents and staff who sat for interviews and whose insights added greatly to understanding the facts gathered in research; and to an underwriter who did not hesitate to support the project.

To the best of our knowledge, no book of this sort on this subject has ever been published.  The people whose lives are illustrated here rarely appear in history books.  Perhaps this effort will amend that omission so that those who lived on the island of refuge, and their heroism,  will not be forgotten.  

Michael J Goc - January, 1997

To purchase this book contact: Northern Wisconsin Center's Business Office at 715-723-5542 ext. 4131 or  the Valley Credit Union at 1680 East Park Avenue, Chippewa Falls, WI 54729. 

Last Revised: June 17, 2016