Preserving history of the Anoka Asylum

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 1:45 PM

The Anoka Asylum, later renamed Anoka State Hospital, operated for 99 years, housing and later treating mentally ill patients. An oral history project seeks to record patient and staff memories.

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At the start of the 20th century, Anoka fought for the state hospital campus that would operate until the end of the century, when a new center replaced it.

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The first 100 patients arrived at the newly opened Anoka Asylum in March 1900. The group of men who traveled by train from the St. Peter hospital were classified as “incurables.”

“Men who have lost their minds from hereditary causes, environment,” according to newspaper accounts of the day.

The asylum was not built originally as a place for treatment. Rather it was where most of these men would live out their days. According to historical records, 86 of those first 100 patients died there and many were buried in numbered graves at the cemetery on the grounds.

During the next century, thousands of male and female patients lived at the site, later renamed the Anoka State Hospital and then the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center. Its mission and practices evolved as medicine and society’s perception of mental illness changed.

The hospital also played an important role in the city’s history, as a major employer for many years. It operated until 1999, when residents were transferred to a new facility nearby.

The Anoka County Historical Society is trying to preserve the stories surrounding the hospital by collecting oral histories from patients, staff and community members. It has partnered with Hennepin County Technical College to complete the project.

With a $4,800 state grant, the society has hired historian and physician Neal Holtan to conduct the interviews. So far, Holtan, who is also medical director of St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, has interviewed about 20 people. Todd Mahon, executive director of the historical society, said he’s now exploring ways of presenting this material, perhaps in a documentary format.

Objective fact-finder

Holtan earned his medical degree from the University of Iowa and years later earned a Ph.D. in the history of medicine at the University of Minnesota, which made him an ideal choice for the project, Mahon said.

Holtan said he approached the work as an objective fact-finder and urges others to view the history through that lens as well.

“It’s so easy to make assumptions about events in the past and place value judgments on them,” he said. “That is a temptation that is hard to resist.”

The living-history project reaches as far back as the 1940s. A nurse from that time recalled her work at the hospital and how many people viewed her as wasting her education and talents on the mentally ill.

“With the staff, you see a real fierce loyalty and dedication to the job,” Mahon said. “They defend the place. They are almost anticipating the place needed defense.”

Former patients proved harder to track down, but they too shared a mix of memories.

“The patients had positive things to say about the treatment,” Mahon said. “I remember one saying how it changed her life. I was surprised with how positively they viewed it.”

Early history

Recently, Holtan and Mahon outlined for a visitor the early history of the hospital that can’t be captured in oral accounts.

  • related content

  • A patient in the Miller Building for Women at the Anoka State Hospital in 1967.

  • Retired Anoka Police Capt. Tom Anderson, who oversaw security at the regional treatment center from 1986 to 1999, was one of those interviewed by Neal Holtan for a history of the site.

  • Gretchen Anderson, Tom Anderson’s wife, was a head nurse at the hospital and also was interviewed. She said some “people did get better” there, while for others it was a revolving door of treatment.

  • Then: The Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center

  • Hospital timeline

    1900: Opens as Anoka Asylum, with 100 men as patients.

    1904: Facility begins to house women.

    1920: Flu epidemic kills as many as 176 patients

    1937: Name changed to Anoka State Hospital

    1948: Total population at institution:  about 1,300 patients, nearly 1,000 of them women. Overcrowding is severe.

    1949: Restraints and straitjackets burned on Halloween night in center of campus. Gov. Luther Youngdahl set the blaze.

    1960s and ’70s: Deinstitutionalization of patients begins and accelerates; many are moved to nursing homes.

    1985: Name is changed to Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center.

    1994: Legislature approves funding to build a new treatment center

    1999: Old center closes; new one opens.

    Sources: Minnesota Dept. of Human Services, Anoka County Historical Society

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