Preface: Thank you for your patience in waiting for this new blog! I have been swamped with moving, starting grad school, and an unexpected trip back to Bismarck for a funeral.I plan to typically update more often.
I am split open like the tree outside my window. Poor miss tree was struck by lightening in a recent storm. She looks so vulnerable, cut open like that without her bark to protect her. Raw. The tree equivalent of scars, bruises. I feel for her. And yet- she also looks so beautiful, so unique.
Surely that tree knew the storm was coming, but there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it. I ran into the proverbial storm asking the lightening to strike me.This is where this metaphor ends.
The storm was the asylum, its dark history, and madness itself. I knew that I needed to chase this storm so that I might understand our past, the past of us mad ones. So that I might draw my version of the map and a compass. So I stepped dead center in the swirling eye of this storm when I decided to do this artist residency at the former MN insane asylum. When I arrived, the hairs on my arm stood at attention.
It is 85 degrees, but I feel a surge of cold. I feel spirits move through me. Not ghosts but the electricity and energy of all the people who were here before me.
In 1886, The Moorhead News wrote that Fergus Falls was preparing for “a big immigration of people who are ‘off their nut.'” “Minnesota’s Third State Hospital for the Insane” in Fergus Falls. Back in those days, the hospitals were usually referred to as asylums and patients were called inmates. Addiction was called intemperance; depression was called melancholia; Alzheimer’s Disease was senility.
The hospital was designed in “The Kirkbride Architectural Style” by a Minneapolis architect named Warren Dunnell. Dr. Kirkbride was the founder of the American Psychiatric Association known as a pioneer and visionary for creating more humane mental healthcare. Kirkbride architecture was based upon the doctor’s vision and prescription for healing patients. Large windows and towers to provide patients with abundant natural light. Giant day rooms in each wing for socialization. Plenty of green outdoor space and gazebos so patients could get fresh air.
In addition to revolutionizing construction of asylums, Kirkbride also was one of the first to classify insanity as a disease and wanted it to be treated as such, discouraging restraints like straight jackets.
Original cost in 1890: One million. Upon completion, the hospital would be the length of five football fields on 65 acres. They originally were self-sustaining, with gardens and a farm. At it’s peak, the cows produced 3,000 pounds of milk per day (more to come on that later).
First documented reasons for hospitalization to FF Hospital: “epilepsy, intemperance, injury to head, disappointment in love, and overwork.” One patient speculated in 1910 that he was committed because of his “long hair” and “the way he pondered.”
As I wander the grounds, I wonder what it would have been like to be a patient here. There are signs of decay, rubble and ruin. I cannot go inside the buildings because of mold and other old stuff. I feel the old spirits moving through me as I unpack in my apartment for the week which was most recently a residential drug and alcohol treatment branch of the hospital.
Deja vu? It feels eerily like other centers where I have stayed. I keep expecting a staff person to bust in the door to shine a flashlight on my face at night for a bed check, to rifle through the drawers and search under the mattress to search for contraband, to flick the lights up at 7 and tell me it’s time to stand in line to get my meds or blow in a tube for a breathalyzer or pee into a cup. Every time I walk around the grounds, I notice something different. A door spray painted: “HELP ME.”
But it would be insulting to immediately associate this with a place of ruin and collapse because we have to remember too that this is a place where people came to heal. Many amazing doctors, nurses, groundskeepers, social workers, and other staff devoted their lives to making patients feel safe, accepted, cared for, to help them get better. My friend speaks proudly of her mom who helped people in the acute unit and transition to the community. Another friend says that residential drug and alcohol treatment here “changed her life” when she was a teenager.
The grounds are green and lush. Several of the former nurse’s quarters/ treatment buildings have been remodeled into residential apartments that preserve the historic nature of the grounds while adding modern touches. Wild flowers grow out of cracks in the cement. Fergus Falls community members are devoted to preserving the hospital and Hinge Arts has been an amazing use of the historic space.
Signs of healing and holding on are there when we look hard enough, when we are willing to redefine what those terms mean, and to see beauty in rubble.
- Historical Research thanks to Ottertail County Historical Society and Fergus Falls Daily Journal
- Header image of Postcard: MNHS.org
- Anonymous Portrait of a female psychiatric patient, “Melancholia” 1875-1885 (ca) via luminous-lint.blogspot.com
- “HELP ME” Image courtesy Tessa.