Prior to 1839 Maine had no state provision for the care of the insane. The several towns provided in various indifferent ways for such unfortunates as were in indigent circumstances, while dangerous lunatics were simply restrained in the common prisons, which were wholly without means of care or relief.
The cardinal motive in building a state asylum was to provide better care for such. Now any indigent person within the state may be admitted upon proper order, and the town in which such person has a settlement is charged chiefly with the expense; but a person within the state not having a settlement may be cared for wholly at the expense of the state. The attention of the legislature was first called to the subject in 1830, by Governor Jonathan G. Hunton; but nothing definite was done until 1834, when Governor Dunlap urged that a systematic and suitable provision be made by the state for the relief of her insane. Petitions to that end and in regard to a location followed from various parts of the state, and these, with that part of the governor’s message pertaining to it, were referred to a legislative committee, which reported in favor of the establishment of such an institution.
On the 8th of March, 1834, the legislature appropriated $20,000 for the purpose, upon condition that a like sum should be raised by individual donations within one year. Before the time limit was reached Reuel Williams of Augusta and Benjamin Brown of Vassalboro each agreed to contribute $10,000 for the purpose. Mr. Brown in his donation proposed to convey to the state as a site, two hundred acres of land, lying on the Kennebec river in Vassalboro, and would consent to a sale of the estate, if advisable to build elsewhere. The legislature accepted the land, which was sold for $4,000 and the present more eligible site was selected in Augusta, on the eastern bank of the Kennebec, nearly opposite the state house, for which $3,000 was paid. Reuel Williams, who was appointed a commissioner to erect the hospital, sent John B. Lord, of Hallowell, to examine similar institutions, and the general plan of the asylum at Worcester, Mass., was adopted. During 1836 contracts were made and materials collected, but in March, 1837, Mr. Williams resigned the office and John H. Hartwell was appointed, under whose supervision the work was carried on one year. In March, 1838, a further appropriation of $29,500 was made to complete the exterior, and Charles Keene was appointed in place of Mr. Hartwell. In 1840 a further appropriation of $28,000 was made to complete the wings, and on the 14th of October one of the 126 rooms was occupied by the first patient.
The accompanying landscape illustration shows the asylum and its beautiful surroundings in 1892. The view is from the northwest, looking from the river. The farm of four hundred acres belonging to the state reaches into the left background of the picture, and also includes some broad fields sloping west to the river bank, showing models of thrifty and profitable farming. The two large hospital buildings in the center background of the view were erected by Doctor Sanborn in 1888 and 1889; in fact less than half of the present equipment of the institution was in existence when he came here in 1866, and nearly half of the buildings have been erected and occupied under his supervision.
It is a great credit to the commonwealth–the existence and efficiency of so liberal a charity to unfortunate humanity–and it is only just to a broad-minded, capable public servant to note here that this noble institution under the liberal provisions of the state has reached its most important period thus far within the decade marked by the management of Dr. Bigelow T. Sanborn.
Book: Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine, Chapter IV – Civil History and Institutions
Collection: American County Histories: Maine
From the Introduction: History is a record of human experience. Human acts are its sources, its forces, its substance, its soul. Individual life is its unit; collective biography its sum total. This book is an effort to preserve some of the staple facts in the lives of the men and women of Kennebec county. Those who have attempted such work know its difficulties; those who have not cannot understand them.
Early local history is, at best, but a collection of memories and traditions, with an occasional precious bit of written data. Of necessity, such chains have many missing links. The questioner is so frequently told that had he but come ten—or twenty—years ago, such and such an one, now gone, could have told him so much. Those people then would surely have said the same of their predecessors. So if, for the printed page, we get what we can when we can, the reader has the best obtainable.