"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Fergus Falls has quite the story w/ "Kirkbride"

The grand Kirkbride complex of Fergus Falls
The historical annals of Morris should report a standard teasing line of the mid-20th Century.
Part of the purpose of my online writing is to preserve such stuff. A historical organization would consider it too trivial. Not only that, it's shameful for our society.
Today we manage kids like there's no margin for misbehavior. It started years ago with such buzzwords as "conflict resolution." Today we have all the anti-bullying efforts.
My generation, the boomers, was quite on our own. We'd swarm around the East Elementary playground. If you wished to denigrate a peer, here was the standard teasing line (drum roll please): "They're gonna send you to Fergus." I repeat: "They're gonna send you to Fergus."
Today we all know Fergus Falls as a wonderful community of about 14,000 to the north of here. It has always been a wonderful community. It should never have been stigmatized. However, the fact it was the site for a massive mental health treatment facility was seized upon by kids out in this part of the state, as a vehicle for teasing: "They're gonna send you to Fergus."
I doubt this line is going to be preserved through any formal historical preservation mechanism. So, I'll do it here. It's not something we're proud of. But it was reality.
Boomers were largely left alone to be who we were. Teachers did try to discipline us. They intervened when we were being obvious idiots. It was a yeoman's effort. But the kids always felt they had latitude to screw up. You could have a jackknife in your back pocket. Boys in those days played with toys inspired by World War II. Our fathers were strangely indifferent about that. Today I'm sure war facsimile toys would get kids in trouble. You'd better not draw a picture of a weapon in art class. I'm sure I drew stuff in art that would get me in trouble.
I was highly influenced by the comic books of the time. To me it was all fantasy. I wrote a fiction piece in about the fifth grade that had boys defending themselves with giant slingshots. They had run away from home. Hey, it's fantasy!
In the fall in 1964 we saw faux "gang" warfare on the East Elementary playground. The boys divided up into "Johnsons" and "Goldwaters" with the Johnsons having a substantial numerical advantage.
Another focus for conflict among us charming kids was the NFO (National Farmers Organization). You'd better be prepared to give the "right" answer if someone approached you and asked about NFO. The NFO was an attempt to unionize farmers, which always was a futile effort. Society as a whole was much more generous and accommodating about unionization. Union proponents are being highly marginalized today. This coincides, not coincidentally, with the evaporation of the middle class.
The middle class in America was probably at its height when the boomer generation was young. We were much more likely to be in a home with a stay-at-home mother. Did daycares even exist then? Today both parents work and the standard of living isn't any higher. I see these little clusters of daycare kids around town and I can't help but think they'd be better off at home with mom. Women have been "liberated." They have both feet in the workplace. Are they finding any real joy as a result of this?
Men could stay home and take care of the kids too. But someone should.
Home of the Otters
Fergus Falls MN is the county seat of Otter Tail County. The "falls" inspiring its name were discovered by an intrepid soul named Joe Whitford, a Scottish trapper, in 1856. The town got named for his employer, James Fergus. Alas, frontier times could be brutal: Whitford was a victim of the 1862 Sioux uprising.
Fergus Falls is a straight shot north of Morris on Highway 59. You pass by a wind farm. The Pomme de Terre River is always close by. The river issues out of Stalker Lake near Fergus Falls. Stalker is known as a deep lake with walleyes.
To look at a map, you'd think a short jog on the Interstate is necessary to get to Fergus Falls. I have been corrected on this. You can stay on Highway 59 the whole way, but I'll warn you: the segment closest to Fergus Falls is in rough shape. Word is, lots of highways around Minnesota are in rough shape. This past winter and spring were hard on our roads. I'm sure glad I don't need to commute.
Fergus Falls High School has the nickname "Otters."
The mental health treatment mission associated with Fergus Falls, goes back to the "Kirkbride" building. The last patients were dismissed in 2006. What's left is a sprawling, breathtaking really, relic of a building/complex. It's massive. It also presents a problem just like what we had in Morris with our old school. What to do with it? Tear it down? Let a developer try his hand?
"From the air it looks like a castle," Boyd Huppert of KARE TV reported.
The grand Kirkbride was built in the late 1800s atop a hill. It's a third of a mile long and 500 square feet in size. Wow! The state turned it over to the City of Fergus Falls. Demolition seemed likely. I'll offer the opinion here that it's still coming. I have grown cynical after seeing what happened to our old school complex. I was probably cynical already. But who knows?
City Administrator Mark Sievert was besieged with questions re. "When are you going to tear it down?"
Grand as the Kirkbride seemed, it seemed too old and too large to be of use in Fergus Falls. An organization called "Friends of the Kirkbride" was born. It opposed demolition. In Morris we had the "re-use committee" which seemed about as useful as a potted plant. In Fergus Falls the realists ran into the dreamers. Do you want to wager on which side tends to prevail in this stuff?
I do admire the spirit of the dreamers. The Kirkbride is a breathtaking architectural relic. But it's truly a relic, dating back to a time when society tried "moral treatment" as an approach with mentally challenged people. In the latter half of the 19th Century, massive structures like the Kirkbride were conceived as ideal sanctuaries. They had trouble maintaining the kind of resources necessary. Patient populations grew. Funding was a struggle.
Within decades of their conception, new treatment methods and hospital design concepts emerged. By the end of the 20th Century, the grand old buildings had been mostly abandoned or demolished. Many are decaying, "their mysterious grandeur intensified by their derelict conditions," it has been written.
The man who started it all
Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride was a founding member of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. The Association was a forerunner of the American Psychiatric Association.
Dr. Kirkbride was a 19th Century physician and asylum superintendent who authored a treatise on hospital design. This treatise and other work had influence on construction of American insane asylums.
"Kirkbride" buildings are characterized by a "bat wing" floor plan and lavish Victorian-era architecture. Here in Morris, the art deco auditorium had that lavish quality that makes it a little heartbreaking to apply the wrecking ball. But that time comes.
The 19th Century was a time of growth in state-sponsored treatment of the mentally ill in the U.S. A greater need was seen, and why was that? It appears urbanization was a factor. Gee, does living in a big city really drive you nuts? We read about "growing populations and stress levels of U.S. society." Thus there was "an intensifying frequency of mental illness."
Maybe we were all better off living in Mayberry. Maybe those TV shows of the 1960s, including also "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres," reflected a pining for the simple life. Eventually those shows faded like the westerns. "Seinfeld" was the triumph of the urban-based lifestyle. Let's bring back Barney Fife!
The Kirkbride model represented the finest of ideals. What preceded it? Oh my, we're talking prisons and poorhouses! Voices rose from activists for humane treatment. This is the ideal represented by the grand Fergus Falls Kirkbride. The heart was most certainly in the right place.
Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride advocated an asylum system based on the tenets of moral treatment. He presented the "Kirkbride Plan" where the asylum was a place of structured activity, seclusion from causes of illness - the big city? - and some medical therapy. Males were in one wing, females in the other. The more "excited" patients were on the lower floors.
The well-meaning advocates sought to get patients away from pollutants and the hectic energy of urban centers. Fresh air and natural light were accented. Self-sufficiency was promoted by farmland on the grounds. Alas, all these good intentions didn't lead to a permanent model. Evidence simply did not emerge that the model was helping cure patients. Society saw no reduction in the incidence of mental illness.
A new direction had to be taken and we saw the rise of psychoanalysis and drug therapy. The asylum became obsolete. Many of the grand buildings continued as part of state hospital systems. The state hospital model then went into decline due to new forms of treatment. Many of the buildings have been torn down.
What is the fate in Fergus Falls? Indeed we see that tug-o-war with realists and dreamers. City Administrator Sievert in Fergus Falls had a vision of just saving the central portion of the building. The City turned to an outside broker. Last June, a Georgia-based developer signed a letter of intent. The goal is renovation, a hotel, a spa, restaurants and 60 apartments. Well, "good luck" is all I can say.
The amount of business needed to sustain that place might challenge (i.e. detract from) the rest of the Fergus Falls business community. Might it be more trouble than it's worth? Time will tell.
The Kirkbride stands as a tribute to the humanitarian aims of its founder.
Us kids were awfully unfeeling in the 1960s as we teased with lines relating to "Fergus" and its asylum. Let the historical record show, though, that the putdown of "They're gonna send you to Fergus" had great currency. I'm not sure we had ever heard of "sensitivity training" then. Teachers tried valiantly to straighten us out. Subconsciously we probably heard their message. Today we consider ourselves pretty well adjusted.
Our children and grandchildren deal with "zero tolerance" policies forcing adherence to the proper attitudes (e.g. no large slingshots). Will they be better off? We'll see.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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