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In 1885, the Kalamazoo State Hospital purchased the first tracts of land for what would become the first innovative alternate care program initiated by a medical institution in the United States [1]. The land purchased, the Brooks Farm, was set aside for a colony system that would allow higher functioning patients from the Michigan Asylum for the Insane the chance to participate in farm labor as an alternative means of treatment. The state hospital inmates lived there from the 1890s to 1969, when the farm closed. Most of the farm buildings were demolished by 1971 and Western Michigan University acquired the land in 1977.


In 1885, the Kalamazoo State Hospital purchased the first tracts of land for what would become the first innovative alternate care program initiated by a medical institution in the United States [1]. The land purchased, the Brooks Farm, was set aside for a colony system that would allow higher functioning patients from the Michigan Asylum for the Insane the chance to participate in farm labor as an alternative means of treatment. The state hospital inmates lived there from the 1890s to 1969, when the farm closed.

 

The first cottage on this site was constructed in 1886 and four more cottages were constructed between 1886-1892 [2]. At its height, Colony Farms was able to accommodate 350 male and female patients who could both work the land and maintain the cottages, which were fairly substantial Queen Anne style brick buildings [3]. There were four cottages in the central area of Colony Farms (dubbed “Fair Oaks”), called the Van Deusen cottage, Palmer cottage, Pratt cottage, and Mitchell cottage [4]. The farm also had onsite physicians and essential staff, who lived in Van Deusen cottage alongside a number of female patients [5].  

 

The project supervisors at the Kalamazoo State Hospital made it clear that the patients would not be exploited for labor while working on the farm and everything produced at the farm would be utilized at the hospital to reduce food costs [6]. At the height of its production, the farm maintained an orchard, piggery, barns for cows, a garden for vegetables, and a canning facility for storing food for future use. A 1961 article in the Kalamazoo Gazette stated that the hospital’s cannery provided 162 tons of canned goods in a year, saving the hospital around $16,000 a year and producing 30% of the food necessary to feed all patients [7&8].  

 

Some sixty years later, officials deemed the Colony Farm less essential to the hospital’s mission and economy. Although the superintendent of the Kalamazoo State Hospital wrote in 1942 to the State Hospital Commission that the population of individuals entering the Kalamazoo State Hospital was growing, Colony Farm was slowly becoming less useful to the hospital as a means of treatment and a way to cut operational costs. In 1949, the governor appointed a Farm Study Committee to survey the advantages and disadvantages of the farm programs [9]. The committee was explicitly charged with determining whether these facilities should remain open, undergo systemic change, or be discontinued. In a memorandum to the State Hospital Superintendents, Charles F. Wagg of the State Hospital Commission commanded the staff to comply with the results of the committee [10]. Infighting caused the commission to delay its decision – concluding that the a cattle farm would make the operation profitable.

 

Though Colony Farms did not close in 1949, its future still remained in doubt. Talks about the curtailing of unnecessary expenses began in 1956 in a letter from the superintendent of Kalamazoo State Hospital, C. M. Schrier, to the Director of the Mental Health Department of Michigan, Charles F. Wagg. In 1956, C. M. Schrier (Director of Michigan’s Mental Health Department) stated that, due to changing times, the farm was less useful as a means of treatment as technology for farming became more advanced and less safe for patients to operate; he also noted a general disinterest among patients in farm work, with staff providing more and more supplemental farm labor[11]. Schrier suggested that the piggery be eliminated, the cattle be sold, while shifting to less intensive farming work by increasing chickens, truck farming, and orchard production. About 100 cows were sold in 1958, bringing in $32,395 [12]. 

 

In 1958, the Michigan Department of Public Health deemed the cottages on the Colony Farms property a fire hazard [13]. Following the hospital’s acquisition of the nearby Michigan Tuberculosis Sanitarium (recently closed), Colony Farms officially closed in 1969 when all residents were relocated back to the sanitarium[14]. A Kalamazoo interagency committee proposed using Asylum Lake lands to construct a facility for 500 children with diminished mental capacity in 1970, but the plan was scrapped a year later due to budget cuts [14b]. Most of the farm buildings were demolished by 1971 and several groups began eyeing the Asylum Lake area for purchases soon after, including the Michigan National Guard and the city of Kalamazoo [15]. The land remained in limbo after numerous failed ventures until Western Michigan University acquired the property in 1977 [16].  

1. Lynn Houghton and Pamela O’Connor, Kalamazoo Lost & Found (Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 40 - 41.

2. Lynn Houghton and Pamela O’Connor, Kalamazoo Lost & Found (Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 40 - 41. 

3. Lynn Houghton and Pamela O’Connor, Kalamazoo Lost & Found (Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 40 - 41. 

4.Report of the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Asylum for the Insane for the Years 1895-1896, 1896, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.

5. Report of the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Asylum for the Insane for the Years 1895-1896, 1896, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.

6. Kalamazoo Military Unit Presses to Acquire Colony Farm Property to Locate a New Armory, 1972-1977, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.

7. James Zeno, “Hospital’s Cannery Puts 162 Tons of Produce on the Shelves Yearly,” Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI), Sep. 3, 1961.

8. James Zeno, “Hospital’s Cannery Puts 162 Tons of Produce on the Shelves Yearly,” Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI), Sep. 3, 1961.

9. Carl B. Rudrow,“State Scans Cost of Prison and Hospital ‘Farms’,” Detroit News (Detroit, MI), Sep. 11, 1949.

10. Memorandum to State Hospital Superintendents, 1949, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.  

11. Letter to Mr. Charles F. Wagg, Director of the Mental Health Department, from C.M. Schrier, Medical Superintendent, 1956, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University. 

12. Al Selby, “State Hospital Dairy Herd Dispersal Brings $32,395,” Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI), May 22, 1958. 

13. Colony Farms Timeline, 2002, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University. 

14. Kalamazoo Military Unit Presses to Acquire Colony Farm Property to Locate a New Armory, 1972-1977, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.

15: Colony Farms Timeline, 2002, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University. 

16. Kalamazoo Military Unit Presses to Acquire Colony Farm Property to Locate a New Armory, 1972-1977, n.d., n.d., n.d., Zhang Legacy Center, Western Michigan University.