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Keith Norman, Forum Communications Co., Published May 03 2010

North Dakota State Hospital marks 125 years

JAMESTOWN, N.D. – When the 125th anniversary celebration of the North Dakota State Hospital kicks off this week, it will celebrate not only a long and colorful history but, according to Alex Schweitzer, State Hospital superintendent, the pride the employees take in their work.

“It is and always has been a tough job dealing with a whole variety of people with a variety of mental illnesses,” he said, “but the one thing I hear from employees present and past is the pride they have in their work.”

The State Hospital was authorized by an act of Dakota Territory legislature in 1885, four years before statehood. The legislation used the term North Dakota to differentiate the new facility in Jamestown from the earlier Dakota Territory Hospital in Yankton. It appears to be the first time the term “North Dakota” was used in an official capacity.

Schweitzer said the early years of the State Hospital were marked by overcrowding and treatments that would be improper today.

“The use of restraints like straightjackets and leg irons, overcrowding to the extent they used attics for housing and involuntary sterilization were all part of the past,” he said, “but these things weren’t unusual nationally, and they were doing the best they could with the resources they had.”

During the Depression era, people with mental conditions who had a possibility of release were sometimes sterilized using X-rays. The intent was to reduce the number of children who might have mental illness in the future.

“You can’t rewrite history, and we had a lot of innovation here,” he said, “but these are things that would make us shudder now.”

Some of the innovations implemented at the State Hospital in 1929 included music therapy, occupational therapy and large dining rooms where people could mix. The State Hospital also built its first chapel allowing the patients better access to church services.

The State Hospital offered a rather unique benefit for patients who progressed with treatment and were allowed some freedom on the grounds. They could play golf.

What is now a farm field to the west of the hospital campus was the State Hospital golf course and was used by “parolees, staff and the community” according to a notation made in the 1929 superintendent’s report.

At the time, there could have been a lot of golfers. Schweitzer said the census of the State Hospital peaked in 1950 at more than 2,100 people. Most of the patients were there long term with little or no hope for release. But over time, that started to change. In 1995 the State Hospital had about 300 patients. Currently there are 132 patients in the hospital’s traditional mental health programs.

“We started to see some opportunities for patients to leave the hospital,” he said. “Mostly this was because of medications and the mental health centers around North Dakota.”

The declining population also had an effect on some of the things the State Hospital was known for.

“We had a dairy operation here from 1888,” he said. “We had large gardens and even raised farm crops. That stopped partially because of laws that prohibited us from forcing patients to work but also because we didn’t have enough patients any more to run them.”

The process created another new challenge for the administration of the State Hospital. For decades, the superintendents had asked for more staff and more buildings. Now, with smaller populations of patients, administrators were charged with finding uses for buildings no longer used.

Some buildings were demolished to create a park space for the patients. Others were converted in the 1990s into the James River Correctional Center, a medium security prison.

“There was a lot of concern when the prison came in,” Schweitzer said. “There is always concern when things change.”

Some of that concern also extends to the very existence of the State Hospital.

“There has always been talk if you need a State Hospital,” he said. “We serve as the inpatient hospital for all the areas that don’t have an inpatient psychiatric hospital in North Dakota. We will always be the public safety net for mental health issues.”

125th anniversary celebration events


Norman is a reporter for the Jamestown Sun, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.