Abilene State Supported Living Center History
Abilene State School's history began in 1897 when Governor Joseph D. Sayer appointed a commission of experienced men to select the site for an Epileptic Colony. The plans called for an institution large enough to provide for five hundred "afflicted", the largest in the world. It was to be patterned after the Craig Colony in New York, which cared for three hundred patients.
Local residents were hoping the state would build the Colony in Abilene to help boost the local economy. Two of the people instrumental in securing the epileptic colony were Henry A. Tillet, a state senator from Abilene and one of the early builders of the city, and John Tucker, a confederate soldier and early Indian fighter.
Tillet realized that Abilene was not in the running for the colony due to its poor water supply. In an effort to overcome this shortfall a group of residents helped the city purchase land and build Lytle Lake. In addition, citizens donated $3,200 so the city could purchase 640 acres of land from Judge Fred Cockrell and J.G. Lowdon. The land was then given to the state for the colony.
A committee researching the best place for an asylum picked Abilene because it was "by far the most suitable for asylum purposes". The Legislature unanimously approved Abilene as the site in February 1899.
Construction of the facility, coordinated by Dr. John Preston, was a massive undertaking costing $200,000.00, which equaled four-fifths of the combined capital stock in the three banks in Abilene at that time. The original physical plant consisted of an Administration building, a power plant, a women's hospital, a men's hospital, four epileptic cottages and a superintendent's residence. Many people wrote to Dr. Preston, who had served as the superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane at Terrell, requesting employment and admission.
Early in 1904, the three-story buildings were opened for public inspection and the people of Abilene proudly viewed the finest buildings in Texas outside the state's capitol. The doors of the State Epileptic Colony opened formally on March 26, 1904, taking in 104 "patients" the first day. Dr. Preston admitted patients and classified them into two categories: (1) those who were given free treatment and (2) those who paid $5.00 a week for board, medication and treatment.
Two weeks prior to opening day, some difficulties were encountered. The water tower collapsed which left the colony without water. A temporary water tower was erected but it would only supply enough water for one third of the original number of patients. It was replaced with the water standpipe you see today six years after the facility opened. By August of 1904, the Colony was full to capacity with 201 patients.
Growth in the facility continued under the leadership of Dr. T.B.Bass, superintendent from 1909 to 1943. Dr. Bass endured an extraordinary number of challenges during his tenure.
Droughts caused serious water shortages and hurt crop production. Attendants and doctors were lost to the military during World War I and war time inflation made it difficult to live within the budget. Some male patients ran away to pick cotton for higher wages. There were periodic outbreaks of la grippe (flu), small pox and measles at the colony.
By 1925, the state of Texas saw the need for the State Epileptic Colony to include care for those who suffered from mental illness too. To better reflect the nature of its care the name of the colony was changed to the Abilene State Hospital. However, the "hospital" still served as an asylum for epileptics and was the only such institution in the south and southwestern United States.
Dr. Bass was also recognized during this time for his research in epilepsy. Still, he and other physicians only had Luminal and Bromide as medications to control seizures. Some of Dr. Bass' earliest documented research consisted of using injections of rattlesnake venom which did help some people. He also believed that treatment should include a proper diet, light work, regular working and sleeping hours.
The campus grew from six buildings in 1904 to sixty-three in 1943 . This included officer's quarters, physician's cottages, two hospitals, twenty eight wards(homes) and barns. The number of patients grew from around 300 in 1909 to 1,324 in 1943. As the hospital's population doubled and tripled, providing care for the patients became increasingly difficult. Trained personnel were almost impossible to find. There were not enough attendants to care for the patients because of a lack of funds to pay decent wages. Pleas were repeatedly sent to the Texas legislature for appropriations needed for salary raises, equipment, and new buildings.
Dr. Bass continued to struggle under difficult circumstances until 1943, when he retired. Through the years, other superintendents came and went while the hospital continued to grow. All in all the hospital was a good place to be since the medical treatment was considered state-of-the-art and the facility was self-sufficient. "Everybody who lived and worked here had a job to do" according to Mrs. May Corley, the hospital's first sociologist.
By the 1950's the facility witnessed landmark changes. African-Americans, first admitted in 1949, were represented in increasing numbers during this decade. In 1957, the facility saw its third name change to Abilene State School. This meant that the purpose of the facility was now to care for people with mental retardation. This decision also allowed for children to be admitted.
During this period, public awareness of problematic conditions in some institutions around the country increased. Calls for increased funding of state institutions became increasingly strident. M.J. Kelly, director for the State Board of Hospitals and Special Schools, put the demands of the public into words: "Instead of making these institutions places to retain patients, we intend to make them centers for curing patients and putting them on the road to recovery. We want all those children who can learn to receive the best of instruction." On October 31, 1963, John F. Kennedy signed those recommendations into law.
The last bill he ever signed provided federal aid for research, training, and rehabilitation for the mentally retarded throughout the country.
The turning point for Texas came in 1965 when professionals shifted to a policy of comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation. Steady increases in funding during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in improved ratios of staff to residents. The funding increase also greatly enhanced living environments and led to increasingly sophisticated professional and medical services.
Today, Abilene State Supported Living Center continues to serve a vital role in the increasingly broad range of services offered to Texans with developmental disabilities. In many ways, the struggles of the past reflect the struggles of the future, namely how to provide people who live on campus with increased independence and dignity while maintaining their safety and optimum health.
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