Dane County Poor House

Badger Prairie Health Care Center

(Opened 1800 - Demolished 2006)


In 1880 it was decided that these groups should not be housed together and the County Asylum for the Chronic Insane was built separate from the Poor Farm.

Front view of the Dane County Home (also known as the "poor house" or "poor farm") is pictured as it is being torn down. It was built in 1855 and located on county owned land south of Highway 18-151. (click for link)

Dane County Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Verona, WI circa 1895. It’s purpose was to provide longer term care for those discharged from the state hospital system.

The Asylum became part of the county hospital system, which was set up to provide long term care to people who were discharged from the state hospital system. In order to accommodate steadily increasing populations, the county expanded the asylum facility with several additions and renamed it the Dane County Hospital. By 1960, when the east wing was finished, the facility housed 430 residents. The facility was renamed Badger Prairie Healthcare Center in 1985. Today, the facility is licensed for 130 residents. All of the original buildings have been demolished.

Dane County has operated a healthcare facility since the 1850's. When it was first opened, it was called the Dane County Poor Farm and housed people who needed care due to old age, blindness, disease, deformity, loss of limbs and insanity. In 1880 it was decided that these groups should not be housed together and the County Asylum for the Chronic Insane was built separate from the Poor Farm.


Badger Prairie Health Care Center


Dane County Poor House

A Grave Situation

Burial ground for Poor Farm, Asylum getting hemmed in by development

A marble monument funded by private donations and a county matching grant marks the cemetery where about 500 people were buried between 1880 and 1950. Now the land on three sides has been either sold or approved for commercial development.

A marble monument funded by private donations and a county matching grant marks the cemetery where about 500 people were buried between 1880 and 1950. Now the land on three sides has been either sold or approved for commercial development.

About 70 of the grave markers that once lined the cemetery are now in the back yard of a Verona home, where they have been for 50 years or more, after a groundskeeper reportedly took them there and reused them. Each is stamped only with a number, corresponding to a name in a ledger kept by the hospital.

About 70 of the grave markers that once lined the cemetery are now in the back yard of a Verona home, where they have been for 50 years or more, after a groundskeeper reportedly took them there and reused them. Each is stamped only with a number, corresponding to a name in a ledger kept by the hospital.

Melissa Seymour and Jim Ferolie
Verona Press

The stones all look the same, except for numbers denoting each of the roughly 500 souls buried before 1950 at the Dane County Asylum cemetery, along what is now East Verona Avenue.

Only about 70 of the plain white tablets have been accounted for from what are known only as Cemeteries B and C, and they remain, strangely, in the back yard of a home on Whalen Road, where their identity was discovered five years ago. How they got there has been the subject of much speculation, and nobody seems to know what happened to the rest of the gravestones.

All that is clear is that their original purpose was to mark the graves now heralded only by a single eloquent marble monument, dedicated in 1993 to the "mentally impaired and poor who spent their last earthly days here." A group of area residents led the effort to dedicate that monument so the forgotten place would not be disturbed, accidentally or otherwise.

Now that gravesite - which at that time was surrounded by green on three sides, abutting a highway but otherwise far-removed from any threat of disturbance - sits in a prime spot for development. To the west, where an assisted-living facility once stood, a 114,525-square-foot Farm and Fleet store has been built to anchor a 28-acre shopping center, and the six acres to the north and east are being sold to a developer, who expects to put "some form of commercial" development there within the next few years.

By the end of the year, a bicycle path connecting the Badger Prairie County Park to the Military Ridge State Trail will cross East Verona Avenue within a few hundred feet of the land, and it could be difficult for bicyclists and hikers to recognize the slightly inclined, grassy half-acre as a cemetery.

By 2010, even the old West Wing of the hospital, built more than 100 years ago, will be gone, replaced by a modern health care complex and leaving little by which to remember the hundreds of people who lived, worked and died there so many years ago.

"We worked hard to get that monument because we felt there should be something marking that cemetery," said Gladys Behnke, a Verona resident and former employee of the hospital. "I don't like the idea (of the land being developed). I think it just should stay."

Some people familiar with the cemetery have expressed concerns over how close the construction is to the cemetery, now designated only with the monument and small marble posts at the corners. While the boundaries haven't been breached, it's plain that construction has come close.

"I drove by there and was shocked to see how dangerously close they were to excavating the cemetery," said Sandy Everson, a former medical records secretary at the hospital who has taken a deep interest in preserving the cemetery and helped move the files when the Asylum was torn down.

Digging up the past

To put the questionable future of the gravesite in perspective, it helps to understand its past.

The cemetery was built and filled at a time when people who were poor, mentally ill or otherwise unable to care for themselves were lumped together and given nominal work to help pay for their keep. It wasn't until the 1970s that the state outlawed unpaid labor at such institutions, spelling the end of the Dane County Poor Farm.

When residents of the facility died with nobody to claim them, burial could be shockingly unceremonial.

"Some (county) facilities (around Wisconsin) had orderly cemeteries with gravestones and good records," reads a report of a survey done in 2004 by Archaeological Consulting and Services, undertaken when the county first planned to sell the land. "But at the same facility there might be individual or clusters of unmarked, undocumented graves. Some individuals were buried in caskets. Other individuals were apparently only buried in shrouds."

Even those whose bodies were protected from the acidic soil in the area apparently didn't get much individual treatment, as their headstones were mass-produced pieces of concrete stamped with numbers, no names, no dates.

"I'm sure that some of them never had a funeral," Behnke said. "They made wooden coffins out in the woodshop."

Simply put, there wasn't much respect paid to the dead, as they and their living counterparts didn't fit in with the rest of society.

"The lack of records and (19th century Asylum superintendent) Titus' statement that he gave over a body to two trustees to bury, suggests a casual attitude towards the burial of inmates," the ACS report states.

That's why the story about how the stones got to the home on Whalen Road is so believable.

"It is suspected that one of the people who mowed the grass may have moved them," then Verona Town Chair Harland Dahlk, a local historian, told the Verona Press in 1993. "It would be kind of hard to mow around those markers."

Gaylord Plummer, who handles real estate for the county, said he was contacted several years ago and told the stones were being used in a patio. He said he can't confirm how they got there but believed the person who took the stones to the house did so because nobody else wanted them.

The family who has owned that home for the past 20 years preferred to stay anonymous to avoid further publicity. The mother said they would have been happy to turn them over to the county if it would put them in an appropriate spot, but "they talked about it but never committed to it.

"I have them for flower beds ... stepping stones, some piled up in a corner," the mother said. "They are just safe in our back yard."

Finding those stones and marking that plot as untouchable had been one of the missions of Behnke, Dahlk and about 30 other area residents, who spent several years in the 1980s and early '90s gathering donations, stories and government support to erect the monument and at compile an informal history.

"This home and the people in it became their family," longtime resident Jerry Maurer said in one of the speeches at the dedication ceremony. "What they did here gave them a sense of pride and worthiness. It was a pride well deserved because they were diligent workers."

Maurer would know, as he could recall frequent encounters with the residents when he was a boy and his family's farm bordered the county park. Now living in the Maple Grove neighborhood of Madison, ironically on the same land he once owned as a farmer, he said it's "a shame" there are no grave markers left.

"When you have four granite posts that far apart, someone could hit them with a lawn mower ... something could happen with construction," he said.

Plummer acknowledged that the county did not follow up and said he had never seen the stones. He added that it was the County Board's decision to include the sale of the six acres to the north and east of the cemetery in its budget in 2003.

"You have to understand ... I'm not sure any of the relatives of the people buried there know that they were buried there," he said. "These people weren't being taken care of by their family."

Who's there

Though records of the cemetery and the people who were buried there are sketchy and often incomplete, many records of the Asylum and Poor Farm's residents are viewable in books held at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

And the informal history of the Dane County Hospital and Home, written by the Verona group in 1993, includes a compilation of apparently everyone who was buried there from 1880 on.

It is stored at the Verona Public Library, containing a ledger with more than 500 names, plus almost 100 in Cemetery A, across the highway, where the Poor Farm once stood. Each is numbered - apparently corresponding with the stones in the Whalen Road family's back yard - and lists approximate date of birth, year of death and sometimes city or country of origin.

It includes the story of an elderly resident at the time named Elizabeth Dorman - Behnke said she went by Lizzie - who had lived there from the time she was 10 until she died, sometime after her 90th birthday.

"That's all she knew was growing up at the Poor Farm. Her brother ended up at the mental hospital. She never had any education or anything," Behnke said. "She worked in the laundry and in the kitchen. Another thing Lizzie talked about was taking the food out to the leper colony."

The presence of a leper colony is marked on the monument and supported by other research done over the past few years - apparently it was off County Highway PB, near where the Scheidegger Forest is being transformed into a park. However, it does not appear that anyone with that disease was buried at the Badger Prairie cemetery.

And much like the leprosy patients themselves - it was falsely believed then that it was highly contagious - it seems some people wanted the poor dead buried separately from the insane dead. According to the ACS report, about one-third of the graves from the Dane County Poor Farm's old cemetery south of the road were transferred across the highway after the Asylum was built and the Poor Farm and Asylum residents were separated.

The books at WHS suggest a variety of reasons people were committed to the hospital, and only those who had no property and no guardians or kin that could be located ended up being buried at the nearby cemetery.

One file that caught Everson's eye was of a 30-year-old Irish servant named Kate Higgins from the Town of Madison. She was committed in 1883, and her cause of insanity was listed as "probable result of pregnancy by negro."

Like many of those listed, it's not completely clear whether she was buried there, but that seemed to have been the typical result of someone listed as "pauper" with no date of release. Another who might or might not have been buried there "married a man when 17 years old who was 80 years old and ran away," and another "was married to a man whom she afterward learned had another wife."

Others who were definitely buried at the cemetery included Nelson Delany, who "went to Chicago about two years ago and when he returned said he had been drugged and robbed." His cause of insanity was listed as "overexcitement," and he lived there for less than two years before dying of a fever.

Kate Berteli of Deerfield was committed in 1894 from insanity due to "probably fright" and died nine years later from a fractured arm. Margaret Bright of DeForest was committed at age 61 because of "religious excitement" and died of apoplexy. And John Gunderson was brought in for insanity due to "old age" at 73.

Some were even stranger causes, such as sun stroke, childbirth and "removal of an ovarian tumor," but the majority of the patients were there for unknown causes and eventually were released on "parole" or transferred to other institutions.

These days area funeral homes are contracted to take care of the remains of residents of the health care facility when they have no close family to claim them. But in the first half of the 20th century, there was no Medicaid to pay for such arrangements and many had no documentation, anyway.

"Many were immigrants who came to this country alone," Maurer pointed out in his 1993 speech. "They were brave and daring people."

In addition to the many immigrants - at least 200, according to the ledger the poor and mentally impaired who lived there had no Social Security cards, no driver's licenses and no birth certificates. Many had no known family or friends.

And as the ACS report noted, the facilities didn't keep the detailed records they do now. There's a hand-drawn map made in 1937, but no cemetery plat as required now by state law and no way to tell how many were marked.

"There are no records ... on burial practices," the ACS report stated.

What happens now

There's also no way to know whether some bodies were inadvertently, carelessly or intentionally placed outside of the designated borders of the cemetery.

The ACS report followed an electronic survey of "disturbance" in the ground done by Earth Information Technologies to attempt to rule that out, but it concluded that was impossible, short of doing a full archeological dig.

"We do not know whether some or all of the individuals were buried in caskets or in shrouds and with what possessions. This is very important in terms of the preservation of human remains, especially in acidic soils," the ACS report states. "If the County sells the property, it should advise purchasers of the potential presence of scattered graves and their responsibilities under Chapter 157 of the Wisconsin Statutes."

That chapter includes rules for establishing cemeteries and plats and maintaining them but also the details of exhuming human remains, moving them and care for them, including close supervision with the state Burial Sites Preservation Office, which is under the aegis of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"I want that cemetery preserved," Behnke said. "There could be bodies further out there than what they've got designated."

Blain's Supply, the parent company of Farm and Fleet, has completed all the site work in that area that involves digging, said project engineer Neal Van Loo, so there shouldn't be any more concern about accidentally finding human remains on the west side.

But Shamrock LLC's work on the other side of the cemetery has not yet begun, and the land it's buying lies closer to the old Asylum.

When the property was presented for annexation into the city in May, along with the cemetery, company president Dan Ward told the Verona Common Council he understood there was little possibility of finding an unmarked grave because of the surveys that were done.

"The county has also assured me that if by some chance that the sonar abstract missed something, that they would be responsible for handling in an appropriate manner the relocation," Ward said.

When the council asked Plummer about further marking the cemetery, he said he felt the area was fairly recognizable.

"You can tell that it's a cemetery, because there's little depressions," he said. "There hasn't been a discussion of putting up a fence around it. It is well-defined by certified survey map."

This week Plummer added that a fence wouldn't be necessary because it's public land and the county is not "trying to keep people out." He said he didn't expect there to be many problems because there haven't been any at the city's cemetery on North Main Street.

But it will still be in the middle of two commercial developments, and the ACS report noted that the Poor Farm operated for 26 years before any cemeteries were recorded. That means there could be one more out there somewhere.

"Years and years ago some of the old-timers used to say there was another cemetery behind the barn," Behnke said. "But they're all gone now."

Verona Press, Verona, Wisconsin

WI BIO - Dane Co - MEYERS, Jesse

Jesse M. MEYERS, Superintendent of the Dane County Asylum and Overseer of the Dane County Poor Farm, is the subject of this sketch. It was said by the State Board of Charities that the U. S. provides the best care for her unfortunate poor and insane than probably any other nation in the world. The same Board claims for Wisconsin the best system for the care of her chronically insane of any State in the Union, and that the Dane County Poor House and Asylum are among the models of their kind in the State.

The farm is located on section 15, Verona Township, and for the beautiful and appropriate buildings, and the careful attention which has made the place noted, much credit is due the subject of this sketch. He took charge of the farm 25 March 1879, and at that date the buildings were old, dilapidated and inadequate, and lacking in and out of doors, needed facilities for providing proper care for the inmates. These unfortunate persons were kept in miserable outbuildings, as if their added misfortune was one for which they should be punished; in fact the whole place presented the appearance of a neglected old locality to be shunned.

Immediately upon taking charge, Mr. and Mrs. MEYERS set to work clearing up both house and buildings, and before long all was remodeled and enlarged. In 1882 an asylum for the chronically insane was built, and on 24 March 1883, this large, handsome and conveniently arranged structure, costing $35,000, was ready to receive inmates. Here 100 persons can be well cared for. For several years this place was well filled by unfortunates from other Wisconsin counties* which had no suitable place in which to care for them, but at present there are 108 inmates, 105 of whom belong to Dane County. [* One WI county history records an early solution some counties used to solve the problem of caring for and supporting unfortunates: giving them a ride to the next county.]

The poor house has an average of sixty inmates, and all are comfortably cared for. Mr. MEYERS is one of those men who are built on a broad gauge, his sympathy and kindness of heart being tempered with firmness and good judgment. He has introduced many reforms in the institution, one of these being the opening of the doors of the asylum during all hours of the day, so that the inmates can in and out at will. Many thought that this would not be feasible, but he has long ago proven to doubters the great benefit derived from such liberties, and it is now done in many institutions of the kind. Mr. MEYERS is a thorough business man, his books are carefully kept, and he has always received the highest encomiums from the county [p 143] officers and the State Board of Charities. The poor farm contains 331 acres of land with 120 more of timber land. The poor house is heated by hot water and the asylum by hot air.

Jesse S Meyers was born in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, 06 Feb 1843, a son of John Meyers and Deborah (Flick) Meyers, also natives of that county. The family came to Wisconsin in 1847, and settled in the township of Verona [Dane County], where the father entered 200 acres of land. Here he [John MEYERS] pursued farming until a few years prior to his death, when he removed to Verona village, where he lived a retired life until his death, 30 June 1865, at the age of fifty-eight . The mother is still living in Verona village.They [John and Deborah (FLICK) MEYERS] had eleven children, eight of whom attained maturity: Aaron J Meyers, Reuben J Meyers, Caroline Longstreet, Jesse S. (our subject), and Barbara E Myers Gordon, all of whom live in Verona [Dane County, WI]; Lydia Meyers Pitman, now Mrs. George W Pitman, who lives in Madison [Dane County, WI]; Hanetta, now Mrs. George PEHLE, who lives in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and Johnson Meyers, now deceased. [The three children who did not attain maturity are not named.]

Jesse S Meyers was only four years of age when the family came to Wisconsin. He passed his early life on the home farm, and the first school that he attended stood on the present site of the poor farm. He attended a district school and spent a short time at the State University, but discontinued his studies on account of ill health. He enlisted in the late war on 14 August 1862, and was mustered into service in Company I, 23rd Wisconsin Volunteers, with the rank of Sergeant. From Camp Randall [in Madison, Dane County, WI] he went South, and participated in the first attack on Vicksburg, after which followed the battles at Arkansas Post, Port Gibson, Champion Hills, and Black River bridge, the siege of Vicksburg, and the engagements at Jackson, MS, and Jackson, LA, and Carrion Corow bayou, interspersed with numerous marches and skirmishes. At the last fight he was taken prisoner, and was held two months at Alexandria, when in May 1864 he was exchanged. He then rejoined his command, with which he continued until the last fight at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely, AL.

After the war Mr. MEYERS returned to his home in Verona [Dane County, WI], after a three years' faithful army service, and found that the father whom he had left mourning the departure of a son three years before, had died and been buried two weeks prior to his arrival from the war. He at once stepped into the place made vacant by his father, until business and other matters, late in progress, were straightened up. He then engaged in farming, carpenter work, and teaching, attempting by his efforts to gain for himself a university education, in which he failed on account of ill health.

He [Jesse S. MEYERS] was married 30 June 1873 to Adelaide M. SHULTS, daughter of Daniel and Louisa (SANFORD) SHULTS. His wife was born near Terre Haute [Vigo County], Indiana, 03 Sep 1850. On 25 Mar 1879 he received his appointment as Overseer of the Dane County Poor House and Farm, and in the spring of 1883 was also appointed Superintendent of the Dane County Asylum. During the time of service in these institutions, Jesse S. and Adelaide M. (SHULTS) MEYERS had born to them two children: Jessie Josephine Meyers, who died when ten months old; and Idella May, now nine years of age.

Jesse S. MEYERS has a farm of 240 acres, well improved, on which he expects to raise horses. Politically he is a Prohibitionist, and has always been independent. Socially he is a member of Sylvester Wheeler Post No. 75, G. A. R. In religion he is a Baptist, and [p 144] has always been interested in church and Sunday school work, of which latter he has been Superintendent for many years. In all the various walks of life Mr. MEYERS has always been characterized by integrity, fidelity, and capability, and justly enjoys the favorable regard of his fellow men.

Biographical Review of Dane County, WI. 
Chicago: Biographical Review Pub. Co.  1893, Vol I, pp 142-144