Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The fossil at Cherokee

It is Siouxland's biggest fossil, a sprawling, endless petrifaction. Walk out the door of the lobby, keep the walls on your left, then circle the entire building--it'll take you the better part of a half hour because the place is gargantuan; but its days have come and gone.

More than a century ago, it had to have been perfectly colossal because 115 years later it still is. If you've never seen it, take in a half-dozen deep breaths when you ascend the hill because, I swear, the place will take your breath away.

Once upon a time masons pieced together a smokestack, 25-feet in circumference, from the inside, stone on stone on stone to--get this!--a 192 feet. That towering inferno is long gone, but to get a sense of the immensity of the place, you'd have to be way on top and still use a wide-angle lens.

Sheldon wanted it badly. So did LeMars. So did Ft. Dodge and Storm Lake. Back in the 1890s they all wanted the place because it was going to be huge. When the legislature decided that Iowa's new hospital for the insane would be planted far northwest, frontier towns knew that bringing the castle home would put the town on the map.

Politics? Sure. Politics drove things along a century ago just as they do today. In Des Moines the battle raged. Storm Lake's candidacy got bumped when some pseudo-scientist claimed water was far too inviting "as a means whereby lunatics commit suicide." [Their language not mine.] 

When Ft. Dodge fell, LeMars became the favorite. But some now largely-unremembered bill about liquor angered LeMars-leaning democrats, whose favor then swung Sheldon's way. Who knows exactly whose ear got bent how, when the smoke cleared Cherokee won the Hospital for the Insane.

The dimensions of the that decision are as stunning as the edifice. It was built big enough to hold a thousand patients on 840 acres of farmland a mile west of town. It's hung with 1810 windows and a thousand doors for 550 rooms, 23 dining rooms, 30 baths, and 18 mop closets. Twelve acres of floor surface, 93,000 yards of plastering, 2300 lights. It's foundation of Sioux Falls granite is 1 1/4 miles around. 

The theories of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride created the design. He preached an enlightened gospel, to wit, that the treatment of mental illness required environs that looked like more like home not prison. Yet today, the Cherokee Mental Institute looks like a dozen Downton Abbeys. Kirkbride's "Moral Treatment" theories dictated marble fireplaces, spacious hallways, elaborate lighting. 

The grounds are well kept, trees so tall and strong that one can only imagine this behemoth standing atop a high bare plain, nary a tree in sight. It looked, as people said, like a city on a hill. It was.

Still, there's something undeniably House of Usher-ish about the place, something right out of Edgar Allen Poe. You expect bolts of lightning, men with vacant eyes and unreasonable smiles in straight-jackets or chains, hideous laughter soaring into screams. It looks somehow like horror, and for many, I'm sure, it was a place you were blessed to leave.

But a woman who grew up just down the hill told me she got used to seeing men and woman in white walking through their garden. She never minded it really, never felt particularly afraid because they weren't vicious or violent. Most of the time, they were on their way back to the hospital. The laboratories looked nothing like Dr. Frankenstein's. It's a foreboding place maybe, but don't think monstrous.

But it is a fossil because it holds organic remains of a time in the history of our treatment of the mentally ill that has almost nothing at all to do with our treatment today. Once upon a time, almost 2000 people lived on the city on the hill. Today, you'll see, not so. Part of the place is ghost town.

For decades, the Cherokee Hospital for the Insane was a palace people used as kind of dumping ground. They brought their grotesques here and more often than not left them here because once upon a time we hid away people we considered embarrassments. The cemetery holds the graves of 800+ patients who died here, but none has a name because even in death, they were unwanted. 

Asylum, people called it--and worse, "nut house," "funny farm," words that are themselves fossils. Insane is gone. Imagine the place actually spoken of as the "Cherokee Insane Asylum." Today, that language is obscene. 

If the moral character of a society can be assessed by its treatment of its most vulnerable, then the story of the Cherokee Institute, this huge city on the hill, like a fossil, is full of and even haunted by stories of what we've been and who we are. 

The stories are endless. You can arrange a tour, and there's even a basement museum you won't ever forget. 

Drive up sometime and see for yourself. It will take your breath away. 


ronvdm said...

Well, in California "enlightenment" meant closing mental hospitals; so the former patients are now out on the street. All this to satisfy liberal desire to free people and conservative desire to save money.


Abby Foreman said...

Thanks for this! In my Church, State and Social Welfare class I take a group of students to Cherokee each year to tour the building and the museum in the basement during our discussion on deinstitutionalization. I'll save your piece and share it with students next year before we go on our trip!