Harvest at the Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Non-urban communities had always held the harvest season in high esteem: good crops meant sufficient food for the winter; there was satisfaction in seeing hard work pay off; and perhaps not least, harvest meant an end to the constant labor involved with maintaining a healthy garden. Asylum patients who worked in institutional gardens–sometimes through force–undoubtedly felt the same mixture of relief and pride as any other agricultural worker.

Typical Farming in North Carolina Had Low Yields, courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture

Typical Farming in North Carolina Had Low Yields, courtesy North Carolina Department of Agriculture

From the ranks of only 139 patients at Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in 1887, those who were able-bodied enough to work produced 12,000 heads of cabbage, 1,102 dozen cucumbers, and 4,524 ears of green corn, among other items. The 512 patients at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum helped produce 1,849 bushels of sweet potatoes, 639.5 bushels of turnips, and 335 bushels of snap beans in 1888.

Gardening served several purposes for asylums: it gave patients exercise in the fresh air, kept them occupied to both help pass time and divert their thoughts if they were obsessive in nature, and helped contain food costs. The latter practice may seem exploitative, but most farming was on a near break-even basis. At Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, the proceeds of the farm ($8,967.88) outpaced the cost of running the farm ($7,471.28) by only $1,496.60. Considering that total expenditures for the year came to over $68,000, the savings/profits from patient-grown produce would not have warranted the expenses required for the farming operation if cost-saving were the only consideration.

Patients Working on the Grounds at the Buffalo State Asylum, circa 1890s, courtesy Buffalo Psychiatric Center

Patients Working on the Grounds at the Buffalo State Asylum, circa 1890s, courtesy Buffalo Psychiatric Center

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