Asylum: Out of the Shadows


I had the day off on Friday and decided to take a trip up to Appleton for the afternoon. I met up with Molly and got lunch with her–she had to work. After, I made my way over to the History Museum at the Castle just up the street to check out the newest exhibit, Asylum: Out of the Shadows. This was an informative and interesting history of a local psychiatric care facility at the turn of the century.

The exhibit did a fantastic job of portraying life in the Outagamie County Asylum for the Insane for the residents and the roles of its staff played in care. It was interesting to see how “conditions” were diagnosed and treatment methods used throughout the facility’s century of operation. Not everyone that went in were incapable of carrying on a normal life. Some of the residents in the institution worked on the farm nearby to provide food for the facility.


The institution was meant to be a haven for those that needed long-term care for disorders, but dark facts showed what happened behind the walls of the institution. Physical abuse, scandal, untrained staff, food deprivation, and financial woes made life at the asylum hard for some. Early superintendents who oversaw the facility had no prior experience or knowledge of mental healthcare. These problems ushered in change to ensure that residents received the best care possible.


I looked forward to seeing this exhibit since it opened back in November. I think the current state of mental health treatment in our nation made this exhibit very relevant to the present. I was fascinated to learn where we have come in diagnoses and treatment of individuals with mental and behavioral disorders. I was also very impressed with the personal stories of the residents undergoing treatment there, which was a great touch that removed stigma and returned humanity to the residents.

What a great job the museum did to capture this topic and make it so interesting and informative! The museum also did a great job of making it interactive for visitors. Doors and drawers could be opened view images or read letters and books from the period. Bulletin boards allowed visitors to post their thoughts to questions posed to them. I highly recommend you take a trip to Appleton to check it out before it goes away in 2018. Make sure you download the app on your phone to listen to the stories of patients and staff! 

History Museum at the Castle

Tuesday – Sunday, 11:00am – 4:00pm
History Museum at the Castle
330 E. College Ave.
Appleton, WI 54911
Adults $7.50
Children (5-17) $3.50
Seniors (65+) and Students w/ID $5.50
Under 5 Free
Families $20.00
Members Free

Have you visited the exhibit? What shocked you the most? What was your main takeaway from the exhibit?



History at Work: Part II

I used to work for Winnebago County at the Parks Department. Most of my time was spent at the park or the fairgrounds doing maintenance and ground work. Towards the end of my employment there, due to my position as a seasonal worker, I was told that the grounds were formerly the site of the Winnebago County Poor Farm, Insane Asylum, and the Sunny View Sanatorium. Work got a lot more interesting after that!

Past & Present Aerial View of Grounds


Winnebago County November 3, 1937
Wisconsin Historic Aerial Image Finder

Map Legend:
1- State Hospital Railroad Depot
2- Winnebago County Insane Asylum
3- Winnebago County Poor Farm
4- Winnebago County Poor House
5- Sunny View Sanatorium
6- Northern State Insane Asylum (Winnebago Mental Health Inst.)
7- Cemetery

Winnebago County established a county program in 1865 to care for the poor and mentally ill. A poor farm, which housed the poor and insane, was built north of town on 125 acres of land in 1871. The facility included barns and other buildings for farm use and a single brick building for the poor to reside.  That same year, just east of the poor farm, the State of Wisconsin started construction on the Northern Hospital for the Insane on Lake Winnebago. By 1893 a separate building, the Winnebago County Insane Asylum, was constructed on the county grounds to separate the poor and mentally ill.

Winnebago County Asylum (1893 building)

On the other side of street, where the Winnebago County Fairgrounds are, was the Sunny View Sanatorium. Sunny View was built to care for those suffering from tuberculosis. Constructing of the hospital began in 1914 and finished sometime in 1915. The hospital closed its doors in September 1971. Some buildings were demolished, and others were used as offices for county departments for a number of years before being demolished.

The original asylum and poor house are long gone; lost to fires and the wrecking ball. Remnants of the farm buildings still stand on Butler Avenue. Over on the fairgrounds side are some buildings of the old Sunny View Sanatorium. Garages once built for staff vehicle are used as maintenance sheds today. The old cemetery is still there, and the dead are marked by numbered, cement markers.

For more in-depth reading about these institutions:

A history of the Winnebago County Poor Farm

A History of Sunny View Sanatorium, 1915-1971