CPS Unit Number 123-01

CPS Unit Number 123-01


CPS Unit No. 123, a Training School unit located at Southern Wisconsin Colony and Training School in Union Grove, Wisconsin and operated by Mennonite Central Committee, opened in December 1943 and closed in July 1946. The men worked in the wards.

Union Grove, Wisconsin, United States
Location Description:

The school, built to house five hundred and forty-five patients, housed eight hundred in crowded conditions.

Camp staff:

Directors: John Ewert, Arthur Weaver, Ray Mast

The people:

John Ewert, the unit leader transferred to the school from the mental hospital unit No. 79 in Provo, Utah.  Fourteen others transferred from CPS Camp No. 60 at Lapine, Oregon.  The unit at full strength reached twenty-five men.  Twelve were married.


The women worked as switchboard operators, office personnel, and cottage attendants. (Sareyan p. 78)


Men in Mennonite camps and units, when entering CPS reported religious affiliation with various Mennonite denominational groups.  On average they had completed 10.45 years of education when entering CPS, with fifteen percent having completed 1-3 years of college.  Another seven percent had either graduated from college or completed some graduate education.  Fifty-nine percent reported their occupations on entry into CPS as farming or other agriculture work.  Twenty-three percent when entering CPS reported occupations in technical and professional work or business management, sales and public administration (Sibley and Jacob p. 171-72)

The work:

The chief difference between mental health units and training schools lay in the type of patient admitted.  Training schools were devoted to care of those whose mental conditions derived from hereditary factors, or for whom there was little or no hope for cure.  The work in training schools was very similar to that in mental hospitals. 


The men worked in the wards with the mentally challenged patients at this colony and training school.


“We were given a key and commanded to report at a certain ward building.  No instructions of any kind were given in advance.  Months later we received the hospital rules.  We learned by making mistakes and being corrected in militant fashion. We took advise [sic] from patients and occasionally a word from a charge attendant whose methods we were not always willing to take.  It is not exaggerated to say we lived in fear."  (one of the men, as reported in “The Story of CPS Unit No. 123" by Arthur Weaver. Taylor p. 199)


The men worked in three eight hour shifts beginning at 7:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.


Superintendent Dr. C. C. Atherton reportedly tended to keep COs under tight control.  Assistant Director Arthur Weaver reported that men were frequently called into his office for discipline, and were punished with loss of furlough days.  The following occurred on another occasion:


The Superintendent visited a ward without advanced notice and found one of the fellows sitting in a chair.  The patients were in bed and the work was completed for the night.  The CPS man, not knowing who the visitor was, did not rise to his feet when the charge attendant stood up.  The Superintendent ordered the follow to his feet with a command to rise in the presence of his superior officer.  The fellow then explained that in his two months of service . . . he had never been given the opportunity to see or meet “his superior officer” and therefore did not know who his superior officer was.  The scolding that followed was tempered by this fact but the incident was illustrative of the relationship which existed between the Superintendent and the members of the unit throughout the entire history of the unit. (from Weaver in Taylor p. 184)


Training schools maintained different wards for patients of differing mental abilities, children and adults, as well as males and females.  This Training School organized wards by abilities, size and age utilizing demeaning terminology—“small morons, imbeciles age 8-16”, “large morons, workers”, “babies, sick crippled, small imbeciles and idiots”, and “large morons, large idiots, and punishment cases”.  While wards separated males and females, a single building housed male and female tubercular patients.  (Taylor p. 195)


As CPS men and women collected narratives on treatment and abuse in mental hospitals, they included data from training schools as well.  That information was published in Out of Sight, Out of Mind, later shown to reporters who exposed conditions in mental hospitals and training schools.  The men and women COs supplied information on conditions at Union Grove.

Camp life:

During the first year of the unit, many of the men, and even some of their wives lived on patient wards.  After more than a year, the hospital completed a frame cottage to house ten married couples and eleven single men. 


Some community leaders in Union Grove were not fond of COs.  In fact, shortly after the unit opened, Ewert "was called to the private office of the banker of Union Grove and told that the people of Union Grove did not like COs and did not want to see them on the streets and even suggested that the irritated citizens might resort to a neck-tie party.” (Taylor p. 192)


For more information on this and other Mennonite mental hospital and training school units, see Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service.  Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee printed by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 1949, Chapter XVI pp. 213-251.


For more information on women COs see Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-47. Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.


See Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill.  Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1994.


See also Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience:  The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-47. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952.


Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Camp periodicals database.


For more in depth treatment of mental health and training school units, see Steven J. Taylor, Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009.