Oregon State Hospital During the 1960s

From the Oregon Historical Society Journal, Summer 2008

A Patient’s Memories and Recent Interview of her Doctor

The three-storied, spired building stretched for a full block along Center Street in Salem, Oregon, just a few blocks from my childhood home. On weekend walks, my mother would sometimes take us past the seemingly endless structure, and, when I asked about it, she explained that crazy people lived in the building and that the bars and screens over some of the narrow windows were there to keep them from getting out. Little did I know that, by the time I turned sixteen, I would be a patient at Oregon State Hospital (OSH).

A 1952 brochure published by the hospital for visitors indicates that patients were not allowed onto the 180 acre campus without an escort.1 When I arrived at the hospital in 1965, however, the sidewalks crisscrossing the park-like expanse, landscaped to bloom in the spring and summer, bustled with patients, student nurses, and young interns passing each other on their way to various destinations. Ground privileges were earned by patients. In return for devoting a few hours a day to an Industrial Therapy (IT) assignment, patients were rewarded with a “number 2 card,” which allowed them to come and go from the buildings at will during certain hours.

For a time, I was allowed the card as a result of my efforts in two separate assignments. In the first, I helped feed by hand the disabled and wheelchair-bound patients on a geriatric ward. In the second, I donned a shower cap and cape, then soaped and rinsed patients who responded to me with vacant stares and passive cooperation. Other patients accepted IT assignments in the main kitchen, warehouses, landscaping crews, greenhouses, beauty or barber shop, and sewing room.

In nice weather, I walked outside on the southeast corner of the campus and saw numerous greenhouses. I was told they provided starts for vegetables grown to feed patients and for the flowers that lined the walkways. Near the greenhouses, long-shuttered structures with attached loading docks bordered the several acres of arable land between the hospital grounds and the Oregon State Prison walls. I thought the buildings looked like the remnants of a farm. I later learned that, at one time, the hospital — a largely self-contained community when I was a patient there, having its own library, fire trucks, morgue, and religious services, for example — had depended on patient workers to produce and harvest all of the agricultural products consumed at the institution. In 1893, the hospital actually produced enough to feed not only themselves but also the institutions for the deaf and for the blind.

When I was a patient at the hospital, the fields appeared unused, although the tracks of a narrow gauge railway remained, leading from the fields and into the entrance of a tunnel. The system — still in use in 1965 — allowed for the transportation of all kinds of goods to different sections of the hospital, even in bad weather. As a new patient, I had been escorted into the tunnel system to have my picture taken and to get tested for tuberculosis. Men pushing hot-food carts passed us, headed for the elevator that took them into the building above. Other carts were heaped with laundry, which I later learned was sent to the prison for processing.

READ the remainder of this interview.