Anoka County history: Historic role in care of mentally ill

North of the Anoka’s Northstar Rail station, right up Fourth Avenue, is the old Anoka State Hospital.

The facility, a series of cottage-style buildings laid out in a circular pattern, stopped treating and housing mentally ill patients after a new facility opened 1999.

Today, Anoka County owns the property and uses some of the buildings for the Anoka County Workhouse and its administration.

In the 1890s, Anoka competed with Hastings to be selected as the site for Minnesota’s newest state hospital.

The major reason for the spirited competition between the two cities an economic one.

When a hospital was built, jobs followed — and stayed.

Ultimately, Anoka’s location on three railway lines, its relative closeness to Minneapolis and its still rural environment convinced the state’s decision makers to build in Anoka.

In 1900, the hospital opened to its first 100 (male) patients.

The care for the mentally ill, or the insane, has always been evolving.

In the mid and latter part of the 19th century the best minds in the world saw the insane best treated in large institutions.

Indeed, the buildings that were built at that time were designed as such.

The Kirkbride style of hospital, named for Dr. Thomas Kirbride, a founding member of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions, is perhaps the most iconic architectural style of mental hospitals.

One of these buildings remains in Fergus Falls and it features the Kirbride style’s hallmark imposing Gothic style and massiveness.

Built in 1890, at the tail end of the Kirkbride movement, it stands in stark contrast to the Anoka State Hospital, which was built a mere 10 years later.

Changing attitudes toward the mental health care and institutional care in general, are seen in the layout and design of the Anoka facility.

Instead of one large structure that was seen as a warehouse for people, the new design was one that had smaller cottages to provide for a more home-like environment.

The central green space was more open to the outside world and was thought to bring better health, physically and mentally.

Indeed, well into the mid 20th century, the Anoka State Hospital provided for many vigorous outdoor activities as it had its own dairy farm that was worked by the patients.

In 1949, the hospital was the site of an event that marked another turning point in the care of the mentally ill in Minnesota.

In November of that year, Gov. Youngdahl presided over a large bonfire that was fueled by straightjackets and other restraints that had been used to physically restrain patients for more than a generation.

The event marked the end of such restraints in the state hospital system.

The end of restraints was partially due to concerns over dignity and humaneness, but it was also brought along by advances in drugs and medicines that diminished the need for physical restraints.

For decades the Anoka State Hospital lived up to its initial promise as a major employer in the community.

The Anoka County Historical Society is looking for community members that worked at the hospital or had some other association with it for an oral history project.

If you, or someone you know is interested in being interviewed, contact the historical society at 763-421-0600.

Todd Mahon is the executive director of the Anoka County Historical Society.

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