Pueblo County, Colorado
Colorado Insane Asylum
Preserving the Past
CMHIP employee preserves hospital's past
By CHRIS WOODKA
The Pueblo Chieftain, Tuesday, December 22, 1992
(photo courtesy Pueblo Library District)
The crowded elderly male patients' room (above) in 1959, when crowding resulted in a push to decentralize patients and return them to communities. (Below) The Colorado State Hospital south campus as it looked in 1940. Most of the buildings in this photograph are long gone.
(photo courtesy of Pueblo Libray District)
Nell Mitchell didn't start out to be the custodian for the past at the state hospital when she went to work there in 1962 as a clerk-stenographer.
But through the years, her interest in the history of the state hospital was piqued. Among the junk from a storage space would be a hidden treasure, a clue to the hospital's life and lore. A scrap of paper could solve one of her many unfolding mysteries.
During the state hospital's centennial in 1979, Mrs. Mitchell began her quest into the past. At that time, there were just a few artifacts of earlier times. That glimpse became her obsession.
"Every time a building would close, I'd go through it and take things -- even if it was just a light fixture or a doorknob," she said. "Sometimes there would be a brass plaque telling when the building was built."
She would be most interested in items relating to a patient's care.
Today, in the former superintendent's home, she displays some of the finds in a museum that meanders from room to room of the 58-year-old building.
Some of the items include a bone saw attached to what looks like an upright vacuum cleaner, a small unit used for electroshock treatments, an old blood analysis kit and large metal gate markers from the days when the state hospital was known as the Colorado State Insane Asylum.
A sign on one wall gives rules of care for nurses in the 1920s, admonishing them to bathe patients once a week and give male patients an extra shave if they chose to attend chapel on Sundays.
Straitjackets and other restraining devices are, appropriately enough, in a closet. An old switchboard, looking nearly as shiny as the day it was installed, is on hand. A cast iron exercise bike looks ready to use if your legs are up to the task.
An entire room is populated with memorabilia of superintendent F.H. Zimmerman, one of only two superintendents to actually live in the house and the longest in the post -- 33 years.
Another display celebrates the hospital's championship Colstah dairy herd, which prospered under the care of patients from 1923 to 1958 at the old farm west of Pueblo.
The museum is Mrs. Mitchell's baby.
She pushed for the inclusion of the superintendent's house on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
The building was in bad shape with very little maintenance," she said.
The hospital initially granted her the use of the basement for the museum, but she soon took over upstairs rooms as well. Now, the museum doubles as a conference center. Or is it the other way around?
She came in on weekends or after hours to manage her collection. Now, she balances her other jobs as an administrative assistant and public information officer with about one day a week for historical compilation.
New material keeps showing up as people cleaning out basements, attics and garages stumble across old records or artifacts from the state hospital.
A recent find was the resignation letter of P.R. Thombs, who was the first superintendent, serving for 20 years until his resignation in 1899. Thombs was under fire at the time from a local newspaper, which accused him of burying the dead in the middle of the night. The controversy came to light again last summer when construction workers on a new prison unearthed bones believed to be from an old cemetery. No one yet has determined who was buried in the graves.
"I was excited when I first heard about the letter," Mrs. Mitchell sighed. ``But Thombs never acknowledged the dead having been buried."
In fact, there had been no mention of a graveyard in the spot.
"I couldn't understand why a graveyard would be hidden unless it was to protect the families of the patients," she said. ``Mental illness had even more of a stigma in those days."
Thomb's letter did reflect the attitudes of the times, however. He talks of the hospital growing from an adobe cottage with 14 patients to its shape in 1899 when nearly 500 lived there. He recalls the ``hundreds of thousands of bricks laid in the walls. . . by lunatics."
Thombs was replaced by A.P. Busey, who served through 1913, when H.A. LaMoure came on the scene as superintendent.
It was during LaMoure's tenure in 1917 that the insane asylum was renamed the Colorado State Hospital.
By 1923, the census at the hospital climbed to 2,422 and LaMoure started arguing for a second hospital in the northern part of the state.
Zimmerman replaced LaMoure in 1928, and it would not be until his final year as superintendent, 1961, that Fort Logan Mental Health Center opened. At that time, the Colorado State Hospital had nearly 6,000 patients.
W.H. Bower served only two years as superintendent, 1961-1963, during the state's first push for decentralization. He was followed by C.E. Meredith, 1963-1976, and Haydee Kort, 1977-1990. The present superintendent, Harold Carmel, arrived in 1991.
Mrs. Mitchell has commemorated them all in the museum.
"I'm so amazed at all the things that keep cropping up and that people keep bringing me," she said. ``I still have a lot of old equipment in the garage."
Even her husband Bob, a customer service representative for CF&I, gets into the act. He has helped her move her collection while setting up a station for satellite TV service for patients in the basement of the museum.
He's a scavenger too.
"He found the old time clock for the hospital (circa 1910) in one of those old junk stores that used to be on Union Avenue," she laughed. ``I don't know what I'd do without him."
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