Poor Farm Gravestones Refurbished


By Jerry Poling

Eau Claire, WI

September 25, 2008

Residents of the Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility in Chippewa Falls
helped reset gravestones Thursday at the old county poor farm cemetery. Inmates
worked Tuesday and Thursday to upgrade 262 grave sites at the cemetery, near
St. Joseph's Hospital. Staff photo by Steve Kinderman

Mike Winscher didn't realize he was mowing a cemetery.

About a year ago, Winscher, a maintenance worker, was cutting grass on the back property at Wissota Vent and Regional Health Center in Chippewa Falls. The mower hit something hard.

It was a gravestone.

After Winscher began digging into his discovery and found a set of records at the Chippewa County Historical Society, he located 262 gravestones, all overgrown with grass and weeds and all but forgotten.

Fast forward a year, and the old county poor farm and county hospital cemetery no longer is in disrepair. Through the persistence of Winscher and the historical and genealogical societies, the grave sites have been leveled and gravestones reset.

A crew of 15 inmates from the nearby Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility began the work Tuesday, and another crew of 13 finished the job Thursday.

"I wanted to change it, and it all went this way for the good," Winscher said as work was wrapping up. "I've heard tons of comments. People think it's a great idea, and (most people didn't know) it was there."

The historical society had been aware of the cemetery, and a historical marker committee eventually planned to put a sign there. However, no one realized the cemetery held so many graves until Winscher located the original record book and matched records with graves, peeling back 50 to 100 years of history and sod.

The cemetery, in a grassy area between Wissota Vent and St. Joseph's Hospital, holds graves dated from 1901 to 1965, including at least two with no names. Some of the gravestones were 6 inches underground, others had trees growing on them, and there were depressions in the earth where others had collapsed, Winscher said.

Most of the dead came from old county facilities that housed the homeless and mentally ill, said Jim Schuh of the historical society board.

"All the county facilities were taking care of either people who had nowhere else to live or transients and didn't have anywhere else to get buried," Schuh said.

The historical marker committee still plans to erect a sign at the cemetery, Schuh said, but most of the hard work now is done, thanks to Winscher and others who pitched in.

"It was Mike's personal research and interest that pretty much found where all the stones were," Schuh said. "He did all of this on his own time. He was just glowing today."

With a donated load of black dirt, sexton's tools donated from a city cemetery, the free labor and meals donated to the workers by St. Joe's, the project "basically didn't cost anything," Winscher said.

Poling can be reached at 830-5832, 800-236-7077 or [email protected].


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