Wilbur Home and School
Administered by Dr. Charles T. Wilbur, a physician who had been born and educated in Massachusetts, his Wilbur Home and School for the Feeble-Minded was established in Kalamazoo in 1884. Prior to coming to Kalamazoo, Wilbur had served as a surgeon in the Civil War (59th Ohio Infantry) before moving his practice to Jacksonville, Illinois, where he oversaw that state’s first “feeble-minded” institution. These kinds of schools or ‘homes’ were designed to treat those with a variety of cognitive and learning disorders, most of which were marginally understood compared with today’s more sophisticated insights within the field. The late 19th and early 20th century nomenclature of the time, frequently used the term “feeble-minded” to describe the kinds of students or patients under the care of physicians like Wilbur, and later his son Joseph W. Wilbur, who took over administering the facility after the death of his father in 1909. Parents of the children who could afford to enroll their children into Wilbur’s private school, did so rather than send the children to a state-operated hospital.
During a time period when those who exhibited any kind of differences in personality or cognitive level could be dealt with heartlessly, Wilbur appears to have been genuinely sympathetic toward the challenges faced by the students he assisted. Franklin C. Dayton, author of Kalamazoo Illustrated (1892), visited the school and described the facility as a well-conceived idea in practice, writing, “The success of the home since its organization has been remarkable, pupils being sent from all parts of the United States. They are given wholesome, nourishing food; their sleeping apartments are provided with the best possible sanitary arrangements, and particular stress is given the theory that those weak in mind require the same attention to physical wants as those who are diseased in body.”
And saying of Wilbur, “a physician of ability and experience, who has made a special study of this branch of his profession, and has made it a life work. A quarter century’s experience in Illinois as the head of the State Asylum for Feeble-Minded, has taught him what can be done in this line and how to do it. Dr. Wilbur is a liberal, whole-souled gentleman–a man of parts, who is doing a grand work for those afflicted ones to whom he has devoted his life.”
The main building and several cottages of the facility were located on a forty-two acre parcel of land north of Michigan Avenue, outside of the city limits on the one-time property of Benjamin M. Austin, who had built the stately, Italianate home in 1868.
The facility closed operations in 1950. Businessman and realtor Charles B. Hayes later bought the home and rented it out to a university fraternity. The home was torn down in 1955 to make room for the construction of the Bernhard Center and several dormitories for WMU’s expanding west campus. The Solid Grounds Student Ministries, located along W. Michigan Avenue, are headquartered in one of the former cottages of the Wilbur Home and School.
Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2023
Medical memoirs of 50 years in Kalamazoo, Dr. Rush McNair (H 920 M16) p.23
Kalamazoo lost & found, Lynn Smith Houghton, Pamela Hall O’Connor (H 720.9774 H838) p.39
Kalamazoo illustrated, Frank C. Dayton (H 977.418 D276) p.14