As the name hints, the land that is now the Asylum Lake nature preserve used to belong to Kalamazoo’s psychiatric hospital. Not only that, the hospital farmed the land – and patients did much of the work.
Raven Wynd is a local artist and a fan of the nature preserve who’s curious to know more about its days as a farm for the Kalamazoo State Hospital, as it was once known. Fortunately, there’s someone in town who knows all about it: Mark Hoffman, a lifelong Kalamazooan and associate of the Asylum Lake preserve.
Hoffman’s done exhaustive research on the onetime state hospital farms. Raven and I sat down with him to find out why the hospital opened the farms in the first place, how they worked and the reasons the state eventually shut them down.
The psychiatric hospital is one of the oldest institutions in Kalamazoo. When it opened in 1859, it was called the Michigan Asylum for the Insane. Hoffman says at the time it was the only kind in the state. He told Raven and me that right away, the hospital began to fill up.
“You had laws that came to be that that would prohibit placing psychiatric mentally ill patients in the jails. And they had to go somewhere so went into the hospital. So Kalamazoo’s hospital kept building and expanding and you had patients who were being admitted for any reason, any type of disorder. Epilepsy, substance abuse disorders, dementia,” he says.
In the 1880s administrators embraced a new idea in mental health care. They thought it would fix the crowding – and benefit the patients.
“The farm colony plan in Europe, where you could take some of patients who were less intense in their disorders, who able to farm, and who maybe were raised on the farms and allow them to get out of buildings and do some work,” Hoffman says.
Kalamazoo ran with this idea. It built an extensive farm system that would endure about 75 years. It started with Brook Farm on the north end of town, which became a dairy. Later it bought the property that became Asylum Lake, which grew crops for the dairy’s cows. And that was only some of it. Hoffman says the hospital had an orchard on Winchell Avenue.
“Where Winchell Elementary School and the Disciples of Christ Church are, so that extended all the way up to what’s now Stadium Drive,” he says.
The hospital even grew vegetables across from its main campus on Oakland Drive.
At Asylum Lake, patients and staff lived in buildings that the hospital called cottages. Despite the name, these residences were rather grand.
“They were beautiful ornate housing units for maybe up to 50 residents,” he says.
Raven describes a photo that Hoffman has brought of one of the cottages. “It’s a three-story beautiful building with a big spire.”
“That’s Pratt Cottage and that was developed for staff members and some patients,” Hoffman says. Pratt Cottage was across the street from Asylum Lake at the Colony Farm Orchard.
Hoffman says the farm system never did solve the overcrowding. But agriculturally, they were a great success. In the 1950s the farms covered about 1350 acres. That’s 150 acres more than Western Michigan University’s total properties in Kalamazoo today.
But the 50s also marked the end of the farms. Hoffman says their demise was the result of several factors.
“The machinery became more sophisticated, and they had better farming implements and when you had patients who you would like to have work on the farm who weren’t experienced in the agriculture community working the farm, it became a liability,” he says.
The economics of farming had also changed.
“It became cheaper to buy milk than produce milk,” Hoffman says.
And some raised the question of competition. As Hoffman explains, if the farms needed, say, a new barn, they could ask for funding from the state.
“Well, that’s hardly fair for your private farmer to have your overhead paid for by state tax dollars,” he says.
In 1957 the state legislature declared that the hospital’s farms had to shut down by the end of the decade.
“So by 1960, no more farming,” Hoffman says.
In the early 70s, about a decade after the farming stopped, the state tore down the cottages at Asylum Lake and the Colony Farm Orchard.
Hoffman says it’s a shame the buildings didn’t even make it to 100. Raven, who asked our question, agrees.
“I’m just so struck by how beautiful the cottages are. I mean they’re every bit as beautiful as the ones right in downtown Kalamazoo. They actually look pretty similar to some of the older houses,” she says.