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.
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.”
Recently, Holtan and Mahon outlined for a visitor the early history of the hospital that can’t be captured in oral accounts.
Anoka lobbied hard to get the asylum more than a century ago, competing with Hastings for a new campus to help with overcrowding at St. Peter and other state facilities, Mahon said. After a prolonged public debate that reached the state Supreme Court, campuses were built in both communities.
“At first, it was seen as a boom in the community,” Holtan said. “They sold all the bricks and lumber to build the place. It did create jobs in the community. As time went on, it became less connected to the community.”
The original Anoka campus was considered innovative at the time. The circle of “cottages” — smaller two-story brick buildings — gave it a less institutional feel than one massive building.
“You would be committed there by your family or the county you lived in, either as a danger to yourself or others,” Holtan said. “Danger to yourself means you couldn’t function on a daily basis, taking care of yourself. There were a variety of mental illnesses. There were people who lived at Anoka who were old and poor and had no place to go.”
It was a place of respite, not treatment, in its early years.
“It was essentially custodial care in the beginning,” Mahon said. “If you found yourself at Anoka in the 1930s, you were probably going to live there for the rest of your life. You start to see treatment a little bit in the 1940s.”
The asylum also was a grueling place to work. In its early years, attendants put in 15-hour shifts seven days a week with no paid vacations, according to historical records.
Some patients were restrained with leather straps and straitjackets. Others deemed less dangerous were left to move around.
As treatment of the mentally ill evolved, so did conditions and treatment at Anoka. Among the procedures performed in the 1940s and ’50s were lobotomies, some done at the University of Minnesota. In the 1950s, treatments included electroshock therapy and hydrotherapy.
In 1948, Gov. Luther Youngdahl allowed a reporter and a photographer from the Minneapolis Tribune to tour the state’s seven hospitals, including Anoka. The articles that followed exposed harsh conditions. In 1949, Youngdahl visited the Anoka hospital on Halloween night and, using a torch, burned hundreds of leather restraints and straitjackets in front of a crowd of more than 1,000. In a speech, the governor said the burning “liberated patients from barbarous devices and the approach which these devices symbolized,” according to historical accounts.
Youngdahl moved to improve funding and conditions in the state’s hospitals.
Times of change
Holtan said the 1950s were “a big time of change for psychiatry.” “Some of the psychoactive drugs came in,” he said.
“Deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill starting in the 1960s also ushered in an era of change across the nation. At the Anoka center, the number of patients dropped from 1,085 in 1960 to 476 by 1970 as the state invested in community-based care.
The oral histories collected for the project highlight the hospital’s later years, and reflect further modifications in treatment.
“The mission changes so dramatically after antipsychotic drugs became available,” Holtan said.
He said some of the interviews surprised him.
“There are former patients who were grateful for the treatment they got there. That surprised me because I expected some negative memories and didn’t really hear that,” Holtan said.
Advanced practice registered nurse Gretchen Anderson started working at the Anoka Hospital in June 1988 and retired from the new facility in 2011. Holtan interviewed her this spring.
When she began, “it was a totally different time, much freer,” said Anderson, saying that patients often wandered off the hospital grounds into downtown Anoka.
“The community was not happy having our patients wandering the streets of Anoka coming into their shops,” she said.
On the job, she was mindful of her own safety, she said.
“A lot of times a person could escalate very quickly. They were responding to auditory hallucinations. I’ve been chased down the hall by a patient with a knife. … It was at times a very, very unsafe situation. It was just part of the job.”
Restraints and seclusion rooms were sometimes used for safety of patients and staff when she first started working there, Anderson said. Their use declined during her career.
Still, she said that, overall, it was a nice place to work. And some “people did get better,” she said, while for others, it was a revolving door in and out of treatment.
Treatment was not given short shrift, Anderson said. Teams formed extensive plans and worked with patients.
Anderson still goes into the new Anoka facility. She teaches nursing students at Bethel University and brings them there as part of their coursework.
The new, secure facility keeps patients from wandering off campus so easily, which has eased tensions between the hospital and the town, Anderson said. A more open public dialogue about mental illness also has helped.
“We are coming to have a better acceptance of people with mental illness. There is still a lot of stigma,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s husband, retired Anoka Police Capt. Tom Anderson, oversaw security at the hospital from 1986 to 1999. He also shared his experiences for the oral history project.
Before working at the hospital, Anderson was an officer in the area, and he says that “in the 1970s there were some very difficult situations involving hospital patients.” He recalled patients starting fires, shoplifting and loitering downtown.
“The patients were also victimized by members of the community,” he said. Some f+emale patients were lured off campus with alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulted because many didn’t have capacity to give informed consent.
“There was a mutual victimization,” Tom Anderson said.
A shocking event occurred in 1976, when a patient escaped hospital grounds, broke into a nearby home and killed homeowner Mary Galbraith.
At packed community meetings, there were demands ranging from better security at the hospital to closing it. Compromises were reached and the hospital remained open. City police took over security in 1986.
After the hospital was closed in 1999, the state gave the historic campus to Anoka County, which now uses several of the buildings to house human services offices and the county workhouse.
Several of the older buildings are mothballed.
“I don’t think there has been any decision or recent discussion about the future of these buildings,” said Don Ilse, Anoka County human services division manager. “It would be an expensive proposition to repair them. That is a policy decision left to the County Board.”
Mahon, of the historical society, said he hopes one day the buildings can be restored.
“They are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” he said. “These building are important to tell the story of the care and treatment of the mentally ill and institutions in the early 20th century.”
Revisiting the hospital’s history can evoke emotions and judgments, but Holtan said in its day Anoka and Minnesota’s network of state hospitals stacked up well compared to those in other states.
“I think we had a high-quality state hospital system. I think Anoka State Hospital became accredited and was one of the first psychiatric hospitals that was accredited,” Holtan said. “I think there were others that were far worse.”