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The Asylum

Special programs on the grounds of the mammoth Fergus Falls State Hospital have been among the best attended events hosted by the Otter Tail County Historical Society--attracting nearly 200 for the first two. A third and final program at the now vacant facility will be Oct 16.1 / 3
The distinct, castle-like towers of the 1890-constructed Fergus Falls State Hospital tower over several participants at the Sept. 4 program, hosted by the Historical Society.2 / 3
Historical Society Director Chris Schuelke3 / 3

Lunacy...insanity...shock treatments...lobotomies...the asylum...institution...the state hospital...loony bin...funny farm...nut hut

All terms connected to mental illnesses and mental handicap; most of them shamefully incorrect--politically. The public has always been squeamish, awkward and clumsy when it comes to maladies of the mind. It continues today, though thankfully to a lesser extent.

But we are nonetheless intrigued with treatment of the mentally disabled in the decades past. This was clearly evident at two recent programs at the Fergus Falls "Regional Treatment Center." The events were among the best attended of any hosted by the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

"Morbid fascination" is how historical society director Chris Schuelke described the allure of the "insane asylum."

"Why are you all here today?" asked Schuelke, with a sardonic grin--speaking to a crowd of more than 100 at the first of three programs in September and October.

"Tonight's tour goes behind the bricks and mortar to examine state hospital stories shrouded in mystery and legend. Stories told in muffled whispers, stories that are part of our lore..." said Schuelke as the first program commenced, on Sept. 4.

There is yet one more program at "the asylum" before winter: Oct. 16, 5:30 p.m.

To walk the grounds beneath the towering, castle-like Fergus Falls hospital is an eerie experience. The immense buildings, spanning the equivalent of a half-dozen city blocks, are completely abandoned. There is complete silence. No movement, no activity, no life. The main building, with its brick towers and its vastness, rivals the ambiance--and size--of Buckingham Palace.

It defies the imagination that, at its peak, this facility was home to thousands and employed hundreds of workers. In the first 25 years of its operation, 1890 to 1915, there were 5,867 male patients and 1,054 female patients.

Even more incredulous, in light of modern treatments that have evolved in precisely the opposite direction from mass "institutionalizing" of the mentally ill, is that the Fergus Falls facility 100 years ago was viewed as the most progressive facility of its kind.

There were separate outbuildings--not unlike a military installation--that included a carpentry shop, a laundry facility, paint shop, and blacksmith shop. On an overgrown lot behind the state hospital, there is a barn and stable, unused for probably a half-century.

The facility was described as a "little city" in a newspaper article in 1915.

"...A hospital farm, totaling nearly 1,000 acres, produced rich and varied crops and livestock," stated one newspaper account. "Connecting tunnels between buildings offered unrestricted movement on the grounds. Dances, music and other recreation created a self-contained, independent community."

Mass institutionalizing of mental patients was the accepted treatment of the time. The state-of-the-art Fergus Falls State Hospital "was intended to serve as a model hospital, being the most complete and modern instruction that money could buy," wrote Historical Society Director Schuelke for the program.

In 1885, a Minnesota legislative commission visited Fergus Falls, charged with selecting a site for a new state hospital. A committee of prominent Fergus Falls leaders lobbied hard for the new facility.

Conditions at Minnesota's other state hospitals at St. Peter and Rochester were horrible. An 1875 report labeled the St. Peter facility a disgrace to the state. Livestock roamed openly, resided in ramshackle barns and rooted in their own filth. Buildings lacked proper space, ventilation, plumbing and drainage. Rochester was no better. In addition to cramped and unsanitary conditions, patients were often neglected or mistreated.

After much lobbying Fergus Falls was finally awarded the hospital in December 1886. The institution's design was based on the concepts of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride which included a central administration section flanked by two patient wings. Construction began in 1888. Built primarily from Pelican Rapids brick, the "West Detached" wing of the hospital was completed in July 1890.

Though seemingly inhumane with today's objectives of de-institutionalizing, mainstreaming and community-based residential group homes; the Fergus Falls "insane asylum" was considered the optimum living condition a century ago.

"The entire theory and practice of this institution will be based on the fact that these [patients] are not criminals for whom we have to care, but sick people - brain sick," stated Dr. Alonzo Williamson, the state hospital's first superintendent in the July 31, 1890 Fergus Falls Daily Journal. "They are just as much the subjects of disease as one who has (tuberculosis), and the treatment will be directed not to restraint and punishment, but to cure. Good food, exercise, regular hours and habits - all these play as important a part in the cure of lunacy as they do in the cure of other diseases."

"Milk is the main special diet in this hospital and we prefer to give it hot," Williamson wrote, in his first report to the Board of Trustees. "Next in importance is rest. All new patients are immediately placed in bed on admission. Through the complimentary forces of rest and milk, we have been able to largely dispense with every kind of physical restraint and we have not used one grain of any narcotic or chemical restraint whatever."

Despite the problems associated with operating an insane asylum, the Fergus Falls Weekly Journal proclaimed in 1901:

"No state in the union has provided more generously to its wards and unfortunates than Minnesota...Of the 15 or more public institutions in the state, the greatest, the most complete, the most perfectly constructed, is the state hospital for the insane in Fergus Falls."

The hospital was pumping close to $125,000 a year into the local economy. And the individuals who lobbied the state commission found themselves with plum positions. One was appointed hospital steward in 1889 at an annual salary of $1,500--more than doctors. Others were appointed to state commissions and as state hospital trustees. In addition, two of the promoters were heavily invested in local utilities that benefited from the 24-hour operation of the state hospital.

In the ensuing years the facility went through various stages of overcrowding and deterioration.

Treatment continued under the institutional model, and new treatments considered innovative seem utterly bizarre today. The state hospital physicians performed an unknown number of lobotomies--a procedure that severed tissue on the frontal brain lobe, by drilling a hole in the patient's skull.

Unbelievably, a 1950 Fergus Falls High School class actually witnessed a lobotomy while on a field trip.

Another controversial treatment commonly used before the advent of antipsychotic drugs was the electro shock therapy. Electrodes which look much like headphones were placed on a patient's temple through which a strong current of electricity was sent though a person's brain. Shocks could go up to 300 volts for a maximum of 100 seconds. Like the theory behind lobotomies, the purpose of shock treatments were to calm violent behavior and the effects of severe mental illness.

Although the procedure may have been simple, it was a frightening process. Initially patients were shackled to a gurney with no anesthetic. The shock was so strong that in many cases bones and vertebrae were broken as patients went into convulsions.

Over the decades thousands of people called the Fergus Falls State Hospital home. Some were there temporarily while others lived out their lives within its walls. More than 3,200 were buried in unmarked graves in the hospital cemetery; often times with no family or friends, just staff who knew them through their years at the hospital.

"For over 100 years the Fergus Falls State Hospital provided care to a segment of the population everyone else wanted to ignore. Were conditions at the hospital perfect? Were their accidents and problems? Of course there were," stated Schuelke at the tour.

But for the thousands of patients and employees who spent significant portions of their lives here, the words written in the December 16, 1886 Fergus Falls Weekly Journal announcing the awarding of the hospital, rings true: "Fergus Falls was far ahead of any other competitors and it 'fit the bill' in every particular way."

Today, it is a vast hulk of a building; empty and completely off limits to the public.

There are proposals to bring business, commerce and educational programs to the facility. But until then, it stands as a strange icon; an immense reminder of the era when the "brain sick" were shipped off to the "insane asylums"--some of them, for the rest of their lives.