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Montana's mental health facility

  • 2 min to read

The Extreme History Project returned on Oct. 11 with another lecture at the Museum of the Rockies. This month’s topic was Warm Springs, one of Montana’s oldest, continuously-functioning asylums for the mentally ill.


The lecture was hosted by Lesley Gilmore, the director of historic preservation for CTA Architects Engineers. As a former architect, one of her main roles is examining and documenting historic sites like Warm Springs.


Warm Springs originally opened in 1871 for use as a resort. In 1874, it was purchased by Dr. Armistead Mitchell and Dr. Charles Mussigbrod, who converted it into an infirmary that treated diseases including rheumatism, skin disorders and syphilis. They began with just 13 patients. By 1877, the site was transformed into an asylum and accepted patients with mental illnesses from chronic confusion to melancholia.


Warm Springs, like many state institutions, is located in a bucolic farm setting. However, two qualities set it apart from the rest. First, it was situated on Warm Springs Mound, a calcite geothermal site containing waters with a mixture of iron, soda, magnesia and arsenic. A gazebo built on top of the site allowed patients to bathe in and drink the “curative” waters for a large portion of Warm Springs’ history.


The mound was also sacred to several local Native American tribes and served as a neutral zone between them. Today, it is restricted as part of the National Register of Historic Places and is respected for its use by these tribes.


Another unique aspect of Warm Springs was its self-sufficiency. A quarter of the patients housed at Warm Springs provided 70 percent of the labor onsite, which was considered rehabilitative therapy until the 1960s. Patients made concrete blocks, constructed buildings and ran dairy barns, poultry houses, hay fields and gardens. The facility also had a fire station, train station, power house and garage.


Warm Springs has seen its fair share of horror stories, including electroshock therapy. In 1924, Gina Kelly was admitted by her husband as part of a plot to steal her fortune and she underwent two major operations while admitted. Her release in 1925 and subsequent successful lawsuit against her husband left some in the community suspecting it had all been a political plot to take down the then-Governor of Montana, Joseph Dixon.


With the exception of these odd historical outliers, Warm Springs was truly dedicated to the care of patients. It continues to do so today, in reduced capacity since distributed clinical care was instituted in the 1960s as the only public psychiatric hospital in the state. Its focus is on customized recovery programs to facilitate transition into communities.


The lecture was wonderful barring a few small flaws. Gilmore used a traditional lecture style and profession-specific terms like “toenailing” (a term for driving a foundation into the ground prior to construction), which felt like another class in an already long day. However, she did use primary documents and photographs that helped to liven up the content, and the history itself was thoroughly enjoyable.


The final Extreme History Lecture of the year will take place on Nov. 15. That’s a full month before finals, so there’s no excuse not to go out and treat yourself with a full dose of historical fun.