Yes, we do listen to your suggestions! Earlier this summer, historian of psychology Ryan Tweney left us a comment in response to our post about our roadtrip to the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St Joseph, Missouri. Tweney said we might also enjoy visiting the “Lunatic House” in Bowling Green, Ohio – so we decided to make one last trip before fall was officially upon us.
The Lunatic House in Bowling Green is actually a part of a collection of buildings that now constitute the Wood County Historical Center and Museum. The primary exhibits are located in the oldest and largest building on the property: the infirmary. The displays take you through the rooms, floors, and wings of the building – beginning first with the history of the County Home itself before growing outwards to include medical history, technological developments, and a history of Ohio.
The site is quite unique, as one of the last remaining county poorhouses in Ohio with a majority of the original structures still standing. The poorhouse system dates to the early nineteenth century in the Unites States. Individual counties provided residential institutions (often as part of farm land) to house those who were unemployed or otherwise did not have the financial means to support themselves. Much like other states, every county in Ohio opened its own poorhouse. By mid-century, the Ohio General Assembly ordered these facilities to take in a wider population including the infirm, the elderly, and the mentally ill – renaming the poorhouses “infirmaries.” They later took on the name “county home” in 1919.
The main building on the Wood County site – the “infirmary” – was built in stages between 1868 and 1898. It was situated on 150 acres of farmland where all those residents (“inmates”) who were physically able were expected to work. The infirmary opened its doors in 1868 with six residents, but soon grew to house 65. The buildings surrounding the infirmary are mostly related to farming: a chicken coop, hog barn, ice house, etc. Two smaller, speciality buildings sit directly beside the infirmary: the “Lunatic House” and the “Pest House.”
The Lunatic House, built in 1885, housed those residents who suffered from “insanity.” The small, two floor building now shares details of the psychiatric history of Wood County, Ohio, and the United States more broadly through remaining artefacts, photographs, and much textual information. The exhibit has either been sponsored by or supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – their name appears in a number of places throughout the building. The association provides a refreshing tone to the historical placards with open discussion regarding stigma, stereotypes, and insensitive language being included for the visitor.
The pest house is only steps away from the Lunatic House – but is perhaps the smallest building still standing on the property. The single room building now features only an iron lung inside its walls, but once housed all those residents who were found to be suffering from any number of contagions and needed to be separated from the population at the County Home. For the most part a free flowing mixture of persons in the Home seems to have been the rule. Residents who were there for a variety of reasons (developmental disabilities, mental illness, those too poor or too elderly and frail to live independently) mixed freely with each other and with the staff.
Life inside the Home is portrayed in the exhibits as having been a harmonious existence–several photographs on display showed residents and staff engaged in work and leisure activities and clearly enjoying one another’s company. The photo to the right, for example, depicts a staff member and a resident standing on the Brandeberry Wall (a beautiful stone wall that surrounds the home), appropriate since the wall was built by both residents and staff around 1925.
The affection people in the Home had for the various characters who lived there was emphasized from the start of our tour with the complimentary Wood County Historical Museum pin, which depicted resident Bert Gifford, with his characteristic little red wagon. As recounted in remembrances of former residents and staff in the museum’s displays, Burt was an essential and beloved member of the Home. Life at the Home was not perfect–one of the other displays tells the story of one physically strong but mentally slow man who for years took care of the Home’s trash and who died tragically of injuries from a trash burning accident. But at its best the Home provided a loving family environment for the vulnerable of society. Evidence of just how warm these relationships were can be seen in the fact that Lottie Farmer — the daughter of Edwin and Charlotte Farmer, the superintendent and matron of the farm from 1878 to 1904 — missed the place so much when she left that she and her husband returned to live at the property. Upon Edwin Farmer’s retirement in 1904 Lottie’s husband Frank Brandeberry became superintendent and served for the next 45 years, providing an astounding total of 71 years of uninterrupted family leadership of the Home.
Near the end of our visit we had a chance to speak with one of the curators of the museum — a fellow graduate student in the midst of the dissertation horrors! He pointed us in the direction of the graveyard and recounted the all-too-common story about how the grave markers had been removed decades ago “to make it easier to mow the grass.” The Wood County Historical Center and Museum worked to reclaim these markers by putting out a no-questions-asked call to the community for the markers that had “disappeared” over the years. The graveyard now features over 300 of these markers, though the original order of the markers and the location of specific graves could not be determined from the surviving documents.
This is it for our summer travels, but we have all winter to plan next summer’s adventures. Feel free to let us know where we should venture next in the comments!
A few additional photos from the excursion:
Unique feature: revealing the old paint layers inside the infirmary (red background) and asylum (green background)