People First of Oregon
Fairview: The Closing Chapter
Dignity wins out over time
It’s 3 a.m. on a July 1969 morning at Fairview. Byrd Cottage is burning, its roof collapsing.
Off-duty staff run down the hill to help. They can feel the heat long before they reach the fire.
Inside, half of the crowded wards are lined with the cribs of mentally retarded people who will never walk, who live their lives lying between white metal bars. The rest are full of people in wheelchairs and some with profound retardation who can walk but can’t talk.
Frantic staff try to wheel out the cribs, which are too wide to fit through the doors.
But as fire devours the building, residents manage to crawl out on their own. People who had always needed help are getting into wheelchairs by themselves. Those who can walk or crawl are pulling and carrying others.
All but three of the 187 residents survive.
"There were things that were happening that were just phenomenal," remembers Molly Holsapple, who witnessed the fire as a college student six weeks into her summer job at Fairview.
"(I was) seeing the potential of people that others had no hope for."
Perhaps more than any other moment, the 1969 fire captures the paradox of Fairview.
Through its 92-year history, Fairview was an institution whose noble intentions went unfulfilled. It was a place that held people back while trying to help them succeed.
And as the nation’s understanding of mental retardation evolved, Fairview eventually was a place that faded into the background while people with disabilities rose above expectations and helped themselves.
The early years at Fairview
In 1908, when Fairview opened as the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded, "idiot" was the diagnosis for some of the first 39 residents.
Others were called low morons, complete morons, imbeciles.
"Politically correct was not in the language," said Jon Cooper, Fairview’s last superintendent.
When Oregon’s state institution opened, similar places had already sprung up around the nation, but the concept was fairly new. Until the second half of the 1800s, the common philosophy was that nothing could be done for the "feeble-minded" and their care fell to families and churches.
"There was a persistence of popular beliefs, supernational explanations," said Phil Ferguson, a University of Oregon associate professor who studies the history of developmental disabilities. "That also had the effect of allowing you to say, ‘It’s really this changeling. Satan stole our real child.’"
But with the rise of science and medicine, a new philosophy on "feeble-mindedness" developed, and in 1852, the first U.S. institution opened in Massachusetts.
"These were all started on this wave of optimism: ‘Boy, if we could just get these people admitted, we have all these ways that we could treat them and cure them,’" Ferguson said. "Of course, that’s not what happened. By the end of the century, even though the institutions had spread rapidly and grown, they really became places of abandonment rather than places of care."
Early handwritten logs of "patients" and "inmates" show that Oregon’s institution was a catch-all for outcasts.
Orphans, hitchhikers, promiscuous girls and people with mental illness all were committed to Fairview.
"Mother said to have been struck by lightning before Elmer was born," reads one 1917 log entry.
"Father had feeble-minded uncle," another record explains in cursive ink.
"His father was a fisherman-alcoholic. … Mother was underfed and overworked."
In those early days, the institution was made up of a main building with white columns and nearly 700 acres of farmland southeast of Salem. Men and boys wore bib overalls and tended to the fields, orchards and livestock, producing all the food the residents needed. Women and girls sewed and cleaned. The institution also opened its own school.
In 1914, the institution reported to state officials that it got a phonograph and a "motion-picture machine" to keep residents entertained.
The same year, Superintendent J.H. Thompson urged the state Board of Control, made up of the governor, secretary of state and treasurer, to allow human sterilization.
"I am thoroughly convinced that the greatest problem is not so much the care and training of those we now have, as it is the prevention of the birth of others in the future," Thompson wrote.
Nine years later, the Legislature formed the state Board of Eugenics and allowed the institution to perform sterilizations. Residents often gave their consent, because sterilization was a condition of their release.
Dean Byrd, 78, of Salem remembers that in the 1920s and 1930s, superintendents also were surgeons so they could help with the sterilizations.
Byrd grew up at Fairview during that era, when his father, Roy Byrd, was medical director and superintendent — the man for whom Byrd Cottage was eventually named.
Sterilization was widely accepted around the world because it was seen as the best way to prevent mental retardation.
In the 1920s and 1930s, several more dorm-style cottages were built, and Fairview whirred with activity, Byrd remembers. There were a dining hall, choirs, plays, movies, dances and annual Fourth of July celebrations with parades, fireworks and visits from the governor.
The superintendent and medical director, along with teachers, the dentist and other staff, lived with their families on the second story of the administration building.
Byrd remembers having Fairview "patients" work as maids in the staff quarters. Fairview kept residents busy in other ways, too. Rather than assigning a single man to mow the grass, five or six men did the job in relay races so they all had something to do.
He attended the weekly silent movies, where somebody always read the captions aloud for those who couldn’t read.
"In a way, I kind of miss it," Byrd said. "But I don’t see why people would get so sentimental about the good old days."
During the Depression, the fireworks and movies were cut back. When work was scarce, it was common for job-seekers to knock on Fairview’s door. Married couples often were hired to single-handedly staff a cottage of 80 or 100 residents in exchange for room, board and $30 a month, Byrd remembers.
The desperately understaffed cottages relied heavily on restraints. There were locked rooms, straitjackets, handcuffs and leg shackles.
"I’m sure with that kind of staffing ratio, there was very little choice in how you dealt with behavior issues," said Cooper, the final superintendent.
Women who escaped the institution were punished with a shaved head, Byrd said. Residents were called boys and girls, no matter their true ages.
As Byrd grew up, times began to change. A "parole" program allowed residents to leave for jobs in the community.
And in 1933, Superintendent Byrd made a historic update: He changed the name of the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded to Oregon Fairview Home.
At its peak during World War II and the ensuing baby boom, Fairview’s population skyrocketed, and there was a waiting list.
When a child was born with a developmental disability or even a muscle disorder such as cerebral palsy, family doctors almost always advised parents to send their children to Fairview. Community supports were nonexistent in those days.
Jim Callicrate, 53, a Fairview employee whose dad was medical director and assistant superintendent in the ’40s and ’50s, says the residents he knew as a child had far milder disabilities than the ones he knew when he worked at Fairview as an adult.
"The people that lived here then would never have been admitted when I was working," he said.
During the 1950s, cottages were built for 500 new residents, but 885 ended up occupying the space. By 1959, the institution’s population exceeded 2,000. The farming operation continued at full force, relying on residents for labor.
But Fairview also added departments of psychology, social services and recreation, offering residents more specialized services and activities.
"Public awareness of needs of the mentally retarded will continue to increase," wrote Superintendent Irvin B. Hill in 1958. "There will be no acceptance of second-rate care."
Still, staff could barely keep up with people’s basic needs.
"If you could provide health and safety to those people, you were lucky," Cooper said.
Staff in white nurses’ uniforms and pointy hats spent their shifts in some of the more difficult wards by changing diapers, starting at one end of the room and working their way to the other. Add feeding, bathing and dressing 50 to 100 people, and there wasn’t much time for one-on-one care.
In the basements, under the stairwells of many of the cottages, there were wire-screened, wood-framed lockups for residents who got violent toward themselves or others. People regularly were shackled to their beds because there weren’t enough staff members.
The dormitory-style setting meant privacy was nonexistent, remembers Rosella Samuelson, 53, of Portland, who was committed to Fairview as a teen-ager in 1961. No stalls to separate toilets. Beds lined up head to head.
When she was committed to Fairview, she was incorrectly labeled mentally retarded, even though she has cerebral palsy, a muscle disorder.
Samuelson, along with many of the residents with milder disabilities, recalls filling the shortage of employees by helping care for the more disabled residents: pushing their wheelchairs, feeding them, entertaining them.
But after living there, she began to mirror the disabilities of others, she said.
"I’m not saying I was above them," she said. But in the institution, "I lost some of my personality traits."
At the same time, she formed deep friendships with many of the employees. They recognized that Samuelson was different. In one of the cottages, an aide gave her her own day room in back, away from the crowded dormitory, where she listened to gospel music, ate cookies and relaxed.
"She did not think I should be there," Samuelson said. "Some of the staff, I fell in love with."
Samuelson lived at Fairview for 16 years. While she was there, the institution’s population peaked in the 1960s at more than 3,000 residents.
And then the tide began to turn.
Changes move into the system
President Kennedy was pivotal in the way the nation — and Fairview — viewed people with disabilities.
He set aside the first funding for what would become special education within neighborhood schools so people with disabilities wouldn’t have to be separated from the rest of society to learn. He called for a national system of caring for people with mental retardation in homes and communities, rather than in large institutions.
"This situation has been tolerated for too long," Kennedy said in 1963. "Hospitals and homes have been shamefully understaffed, overcrowded, unpleasant institutions from which death too often provides the only firm hope of release."
Meanwhile, the civil rights movement was raging, and Americans’ perceptions of personal freedom and liberty began to shift.
At the same time, educators and doctors gained new understanding of how a mentally retarded person’s brain functions, and they developed new teaching techniques that helped people be more independent.
"The means to accomplish the basic mission of the institution has progressively changed with increasing knowledge about retardation, its causes, prevention and amelioration," wrote Superintendent J.M. Pomeroy in 1966. "In respect to this growing enlightenment, greater strides are being made with greater expectations toward improving the worth of the individual and his rightful status in society."
It was no longer Oregon Fairview Home. It became Fairview Hospital and Training Center.
Still, it remained a huge institution, and employees were so busy that they had little time to solve problems by helping residents modify their behavior. Instead, they modified the environment.
After several residents drowned in Fairview’s artificial lake, administrators drained it. When there were rumors that residents were sneaking behind a hedgerow to make out, groundskeepers trimmed the bottom branches of the shrubs so there was nowhere left to hide.
Then, on a summer night in 1969, Byrd Cottage burned. For Holsapple, the 21-year-old Willamette University student who saw the fire, it was a personal revelation.
Just six weeks earlier, she had been told in her training that the very individuals who were rescuing themselves that night weren’t capable of getting around without help. Now they were proving they were capable of more.
"We couldn’t build alternative approaches in the community before we knew that," Holsapple said. "Before that, we thought the safest and the best place that people needed to be was in (the institution). … That’s what we knew best then, and I don’t ever condemn anybody for doing that stuff. People went at this with the best of intentions."
Holsapple, a political science major, went back to school in special education and made a career out of replacing institutions with community programs. She still works for the state Developmental Disability Services agency.
"People in a lot of ways are what we expect them to be. They are what we teach them to be," Holsapple said.
"Fairview closed because we began to see people differently."
Fairview moves toward closure
In the 1970s, Fairview’s farming came to a close and residents didn’t wear bib overalls anymore. They wore institutional jumpsuits that zipped up the back, making it harder for them to undress themselves when they weren’t supposed to.
The population began to shrink, but people still didn’t get much personal attention from the staff.
Callicrate, who spent much of his childhood living on the grounds when his dad was an administrator, went to work as an entry-level direct-care employee in 1973, fresh out of college.
It was New Year’s Eve, and in those days, there was no training before the first day of work.
"I went directly to the cottage," Callicrate remembers.
The lone employee at the ward asked, "Do you accept this ward?"
Callicrate said yes, the employee signed out, and Callicrate was alone with more than a dozen mentally retarded men.
He was overwhelmed. The long, rectangular room was smeared with feces, wiped on the walls, the floors, people’s bodies.
"I knew I just had to get to work," Callicrate remembers.
It took him eight hours to get the men showered and dressed and to get the walls and floor clean. His shift ended at 11 p.m., and he went home to ring in 1974 alone.
"I just said, ‘How am I going to go back?’"
He did, and he stayed until Fairview closed Feb. 24.
"Even though that probably was one of the worst days of my life, I got so attached to the people who live here," Callicrate said.
In 1974, the growing momentum toward institutional reform got a boost from an Alabama court case. A judge ruled that institutionalized people have a right to training and treatment, and this led to new standards at institutions.
At the same time, pilot community programs popped up around the nation, allowing people with mental retardation to live with relatives or on their own. In 1980, Oregon was the first state to get a federal waiver to use Medicaid money for community-based services.
With the tougher regulations, the federal government took notice of Fairview in the 1980s. Federal inspectors showed up with clipboards to write down health and safety problems, instances of abuse, violations of rules.
In 1984, Fairview administrators proposed more than $25 million in improvements, and federal officials decided to give the institution a second chance before taking away federal funding.
But in 1985, advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state over conditions at Fairview, and in 1987, the institution lost its federal funding.
State officials agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars to hire about 900 employees and upgrade facilities. The care at Fairview improved so dramatically that it became a national example in the 1990s.
The added staff meant the institution phased out all methods of restraint, and the locked "time-out" rooms of earlier days were left empty.
Many residents moved to apartments formerly occupied by staff, gaining new privacy and independence.
Things had changed so much by then that Samuelson — who was committed to Fairview for 16 years before leaving in the late 1970s — returned as an employee in the early ’90s. She worked in the clients’ rights office for the rest of the decade.
Despite this huge new investment at Fairview, more and more residents moved into the community. In 1996 the state developed a long-term plan for Developmental Disability Services that phased out the institution by 2000.
In the end, it simply became too expensive to simulate the real world in an institution. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, the cost of serving a single resident grew from $60,000 to $212,000.
Officials decided it would be cheaper to serve people in community programs, especially because thousands of Oregonians with disabilities identical to Fairview residents weren’t getting any help from the state.
"It became both a rights issue, a fiscal issue, a capacity issue, as well as a training issue," Holsapple said.
Today, rows of rusty nails that served as toothbrush holders are all that’s left in the dark cottage bathrooms.
In the basement of one cottage, a faint circle on the concrete marks a spot where a merry-go-round once kept children entertained.
The radiators still bang and rattle with the boiler heat that will keep the buildings warm until they’re sold or torn down.
But the crowds, the ankle cuffs, the pointy-hatted nurses, the cribs too wide to fit through the doors — they’re gone. In their place has emerged a new model of semi-independence and dignity.
"What emerged was that people with disabilities were much more capable than what was previously thought," said Chuck Farnham, a retired Fairview superintendent who was chaplain when Byrd Cottage burned in 1969. "(There’s) this vision that people with disabilities are capable, they want to be dignified by their work or what they do.
"… That’s the way society chooses to move."
This article by Sarah Hunsberger was published by the Salem Statesman Journal, March 12, 2000