History Note - March 2022

Oak Grove’s contributions to education, training are remembered 

Seventy years’ service is being celebrated in 2022 by LIFE Mower County. To mark the anniversary, Access Press looks back at the pioneering Oak Grove school. 

LIFE Mower County and other Minnesota groups have their roots in developmental disability advocacy organizations that began in the 1940s and 1950s. The early groups tended to organize around a specific issue, such as recreation or education for people with developmental disabilities.  

In September 1950, Mower County families attended a Minneapolis conference on developmental disabilities. A key focus was to form the National Association of Parents and Friends of the Mentally Retarded. 

News articles from that time are eye-opening. Much language used and theories espoused at that time would be frowned on today. The phrases “mental health” and “mental retardation” were sometimes used interchangeably.  

Those forming the new national organization had several goals. One was to promote more research. Other goals were more easily attainable by families, including working on legislation to help children get training. Another was to show the public to the fact that at least 50 percent of all developmentally disabled children could be educated to be productive citizens. Families and educators were encouraged to fight the “prejudice and shame associated with mental deficiency.”  

In 1951 the Minnesota Association for Retarded Children or ARC formed. What because LIFE Mower County was founded in 1952 and formally incorporated in 1956. It was known as the Austin Friends of Retarded Children in 1952 and Austin Association for Retarded Children in 1956, with other names adopted later. The name LIFE Mower County was adopted in 2019. LIFE stands for Learning, Inclusion, Fun and Empowerment. 

Education and training were major focuses in the Mower County group in its early years. A groundbreaking effort there was Oak Grove, located one mile east of Austin on Highway 16 in the former Oak Grove Public School. Oak Grove was believed to be the only privately-owned school sponsored by an ARC or similar organization in Minnesota and one of the few of its kind in the United States. 

In 1956 Oak Grove took shape. The association worked with the Austin School Board, agreeing in 1957 to a $10,500 purchase price and payment plan. Parents and community members shared ideas for programs and services.  

The Austin Daily Herald reported that more than 150 people toured the school at an open house in 1957. The prospect of education and recreational activities for area children and young adults with developmental disabilities and cerebral palsy was an exciting one.  

Several community partners made the school possible, including the St. Olaf Hospital physical therapy staff, the local United Fund and the Austin Cerebral Palsy Association. Many private donations and fundraisers supported the school, including the sale of Christmas cards. No state money was used in its operations.  

“While the emphasis is on physical and speech therapy, there are shorter periods when the two teachers read to the children, play records for them, or give them toys to play with … The children learn in these situations to be happy playing with other children like themselves,” a 1962 Herald article stated. 

Oak Grove was used for other local ARC activities, including gatherings of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, social events for teenagers and adult training and classes. Association members used the school for meetings, guest speakers, card parties and potlucks. A lot of volunteer work went into building upkeep and maintenance. One newspaper photo showed volunteers busily wielding paint brushes. 

It’s pretty remarkable to look back and see how small the Mower County group was, and how much it accomplished. 

The Oak Grove facility had different names over the years – training center, achievement center and day activity center. As educational mainstreaming grew in the Austin Public Schools and other nearby districts, there was less of a need for a facility for children like Oak Grove. Eventually Oak Grove served only adults. 

The Mower County association in the 1970s was involved in efforts to start a preschool for special education students. But the association was struggling at that time, with waning interest and participation. Oak Grove operated on its own. 

In 1989, the last of Oak Grove’s services was formally transitioned to the Cedar Valley Rehabilitation Center. That ended a two-year period in which all services were transferred to the Cedar Valley facilities. One factor in the transition was that the Cedar Valley facilities were closer to employers and services, while Oak Grove was somewhat isolated physically. 

The Oak Grove building still stands today and is now home to a church. 

Thanks to the Austin Daily Herald, Mower County Historical Society, Cedar Valley Services and LIFE Mower County for assistance with this article. Read more LIFE Mower County history at www.lifemowercounty.org/about-us.html 

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org