Local man crusades against neglect of cemetery for neglected kids
The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children was opened in 1886 on 165 acres in the city of Sparta. Four years after the school opened, over 2,000 children had been through the doors. Some were there for a few weeks, others months and even years.
Many children were placed in homes and some were indentured to work for local families. Loving parents adopted more fortunate children. The school was only meant to be a holding place for children who were neglected or abandoned but some became long-term residents and sadly some never left at all.
The Child Center Cemetery located within the grounds of the River Run Golf Course is a haunting reminder of the final resting place for 305 children who were unclaimed at their death. Many of the children died during epidemics of influenza, scarlet fever, polio and diphtheria at, what became known as the Wisconsin Child Center in Sparta, before vaccines were readily available.
At the time of their death, it was law that when a child died their names could not be put on a tombstone. Therefore only numbers identified the children’s graves, until the late June Laxton became involved.
Laxton was a housemother in one of the cottages at the school when it was still in operation. In the 1990’s, she spearheaded the improvement to the cemetery.
After nearly 90 years of operation, the Child Center was closed in 1976 when the City of Sparta purchased the buildings and the land. Several buildings, including the main building were torn down while others, including some of the cottages and what was then the superintendent’s house, remain on the grounds to this day.
In 1982, the city received tax increment financing to construct an 18-hole golf course on the land, which had been used as farmland to feed the children who lived at the Child Center. The clubhouse now sits where the old farmhouse was located.
The city’s only required maintenance to the cemetery is to mow it. The bulk of care and upkeep to the actual cemetery is done solely by volunteers, mostly Chris Barlow.
Barlow began working at the golf course as a groundskeeper in the 90s. He worked closely with Laxton during her fundraising efforts to see that the cemetery be maintained.
“June decided that these kids needed to be recognized and so she put in an effort and raised money to pay for improvements,” he said.
Improvements included the construction of a fence, landscaping and the installation of a main headstone, which lists the children’s names and their corresponding numbers.
During Laxton’s frustrating attempts to find records identifying which children were in which grave, she got a call from the warden at Waupun State Prison. They had been cleaning out the basement of the prison when they came upon boxes of records of all the kids in the cemetery. Laxton went through the records and was able to identify all but 20 of the children.
After all of the improvements were completed, a grand opening was held, with then governor Tommy Thompson in attendance. Now, over 20 years later, the cemetery is in need of repairs. The fence needs mending and upkeep in some places and the tombstones often get damaged from mowers.
“All of these headstones are just concrete stones and they break. I’ve been kicking in money and time for years,” Barlow said. “There used to be a fund at the city, but that is now empty.”
Barlow is now trying to raise awareness about the cemetery and its need for funding. Gifts to help support the cemetery can be made out to the City of Sparta Attn: Child Center Cemetery and mailed to Sparta Park & Recreation Department at 1000 E. Montgomery St. Sparta, WI 54656.
“Not a lot of people know about it in Sparta. People who play golf do but I think several people don’t,” he added.
The public is welcome to visit the Child Center Cemetery by first stopping at the pro-shop to get safe directions to the site. To Barlow’s knowledge, it is the only golf course in the state that has a cemetery on it.