In 1885, the state legislature began hearings on the need for a Second Hospital for the Insane. The first hospital for the insane was built at Weston in 1859. Because of overcrowded conditions, it was determined that a second facility was needed. They appointed a commission to choose several sites and present their findings at the next session in 1887. John G Schilling, a Spencer attorney, was among the members of the commission.
One of the factors that would determine the final selection of a site was the willingness of the county government to purchase the necessary land and donate it to the state free of charge. Roane County was enthusiastic with the prospect of obtaining the hospital. The Roane County Court immediately issued an order stating that they would indeed be willing to meet this requirement.
The decision on the hospital's location was not made until the legislative session of 1887. Spencer was eventually chosen as the site of the new hospital. The legislature approved an appropriation of $10,000 to begin construction. The county was now required to provide the land for the facility. On February 10, 1888, the county court purchased 184 acres of land from William R. Goff for the sum of $9,200. Goff, after receiving this large sum of money began looking for a safe repository for his money. Goff and several other citizens joined together to form the Bank of Spencer. It opened for business in March 1891. The county's first bank was designated to handle the funds for the construction of the new hospital. It also later handled the state hospital's regular transactions. The building was 1/4 mile in length. It was sometimes referred to as the longest continuous brick building in America. Bricks for the hospital's Gothic structure were made on the grounds. Native Roane County stone hand cut by Henry Waldeck and Lee Kelley was used for facings and adornments. The slate roof was adorned with cupolas which were typical of the period. The administration building stood four stories high and was topped with two round towers. On each side of the administration building were the two three-story wards, one for men and one for women. The building was completed in 1893 at a total cost of $93,393.
The state's Second Hospital for the Insane was opened on July 18, 1893. At the time of the opening, 54 patients were admitted to the new facility. By 1899 the number of patients had increased to 389 and by 1910 to 696.
Some of the disorders patients were admitted for were alcoholic excess, overwork, senility, hereditary insanity, worry, ill health, head injuries, syphilis, epilepsy, paralysis, morphia, cocaine use, cholera, disease of the uterus, pneumonia, bereavement, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and childbed fever.
For the first ten years the open door system was used. No doors were locked and some doors were even removed. This system was considered a success. Even though this open door system was very successful a fence was erected around the hospital to separate the patients from the town.
Many of the patients were able to work. They worked in the kitchen, laundry, sewing rooms, lawns, gardens and on the farm. The 15 acres of farm and woodlands were used for grazing of a fine dairy herd, fattening hogs, and raising poultry, as well as, supporting large gardens. The gardens produced enough to feed patients and staff during summer, with extra vegetables and canned goods for the winter.
In the early 1920's the name of the institution was changed to the Spencer State Hospital. In 1937 a five bed hospital clinic was added. By 1941, reports show that over 9,000 persons had been treated there. Many persons without families lived most of their lives in the institution and were buried in unmarked graves. Many of the patients were not mentally ill. Among those were elderly persons and unwanted children. In 1950, a staff of three doctors and 150 psychiatric aides were caring for 1,200 patients.
In the 1950's the number of employees increased. An assistant to the superintendent, social workers, a dietician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a registered nurse, and a beautician were added. An 85 bed clinic was constructed in 1952. A hospital library, the first and largest in a state institution, was built along with a women's dormitory.
In 1959 the employees began working eight hours a day and they no longer were required to pay a maintenance fee. Before 1959 they worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. They were paid $90 a month, from which a $50 maintenance fee for room, board, and uniforms were deducted, whether the employee lived on or off the grounds.
About 1959, workers began to replace the structure's original slate roof with its cupolas and other ornaments with a flat roof. This radically altered the appearance of the hospital.
The administration building was torn down and replaced with a modern administration and food service complex between 1973 and 1976. This also changed the view of the hospital greatly.
Spencer State Hospital's function had become provision of custodial care rather than serving its patients as a therapeutic treatment center. This situation would prove to be the seed of the facility's eventual destruction. For more than 30 years attempts were made to free the hospital to fulfill a treatment mission again. All attempts failed.
Spencer State Hospital's late years saw the citizens of Roane County united in a battle to save the hospital, much as they united to bring the hospital to Roane County nearly a hundred years ago. In June 1989, the closure of Spencer State Hospital came quietly and an important chapter in the history of Roane County came to an end. The townspeople can no longer depend on the State Hospital whistle to remind them of lunch time and the end of the day. For the whistle is also silent.
In October 1993 the city of Spencer held an auction at the former State Hospital, in which nearly everything on the property was for sale. Everything from patient x-rays, office furniture, light fixtures, mortuary equipment, kitchen utensils, to the pine, oak and maple trees from the grounds.
A recent grant from the state provided $750,000 toward the hospital's demolition. A developer is being sought to contribute additional funds to complete site preparations. The auction was a prelude to what city officials hope will be an economic development on the site.
Sadly, yet another of Roane County's historic landmarks will be no more. However, on a happier note, the Spencer State Hospital whistle, a familiar part of life in the Spencer area for years, has found a new home at the Monarch Rubber Company. The whistle was blown at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. during its days at the hospital, which ended with that facility's closing. The Monarch Rubber Company will follow the whistle's old hospital schedule, with a day shift employee handling the first two blasts and a worker on evening shift taking care of the final two 15-second soundings. The community owes Monarch a big "thank-you" for preserving a little part of our past.
This article was first printed in the Roane County West Virginia Family History 1989: Walsworth Publishing Company; 1990; submitted by Donna J. Walbrown. In 1994 it was updated by Donna J. Walbrown and was reprinted in the Roane County Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, Winter 1994; Roane County Historical Society.