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YouthWork Spotlight : Ride 'Em Cowboy. Article 2.

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

by Nicole O'Brien

CFS welcomes guest blog writer, Nicole O'Brien, of the YouthWork program, to share her experience as YouthWork member.


YouthWork is a program of CFS that began as pilot program in February 2018 with just 7 youth. The pilot was successful and CFS was awarded an AmeriCorps grant in the summer to continue the program and build the program, with over 150 youth participating. YouthWork allows youth to develop important job skills and experience while exploring their strengths, aptitudes, and interests. The program helps youth and young adults gain an appreciation for the ecosystems that surround them and for the needs of their community. They learn that they have a voice and a stake in the future—their future.


We appreciate Nicole taking the time to document her adventures. In this installment she dives into some of the medical history of the Northern Michigan Asylum. Unfortunately, this history can be disturbing, so please read with caution. Thanks to Nicole for your research and thoughts on this subject.


A YouthWork team assists with the Historic Barns Park.

Today I’ve been given the task of visiting The Historic Barns Park, a section of the former Traverse City State Hospital, or the Northern Michigan Asylum as it was originally known. YouthWork is supporting the gardens by offering pro-bono work which is made available through our AmeriCorps grant and community donors. I ride my way through the dirt path, bouncing up and down in my electric wheelchair. I come to the beginning of the sidewalks around the Historic Barns Park which is comprised of three entities: the Cathedral Barn, the Community Garden, and the Botanical Garden. I zoom up and down the sidewalk in my wheelchair, scanning the Community Garden to see what my coworkers are doing. I try to weave through the garden to observe my colleagues as they weed wack, but I am unable to do so, due to the height of the weeds. The Cathedral Barn and the Botanical Garden sit upon a hill overlooking the Community Garden. Past the Community Garden lies a luscious forest. Zooming across the sidewalk with the wind at my back; a sense of hope and refreshment sweeps over me.


The Northern Michigan Asylum was built in 1883 by architect Gordon W. Lloyd, in accordance with the Kirkbride Plan and Dr. James Decker Munson's philosophy “beauty is therapy.” The asylum began operation in 1885, serving patients with everything from medical setbacks, like headaches, to what are now, clinically diagnosed conditions, like Autism. It featured two wings, as well as a number of cottages, and would be renovated between 1887 and 1903 to accommodate patient demand.


In line with Dr. Munson’s philosophy, at least one window was placed in every patient room. Gardens were also planted. In addition to Dr. Munson’s philosophy of“beauty is therapy”,

he also believed work was therapy. As such, a farm and garden were built on site to encourage patients’ self-sufficiency. The Community Gardens are carrying on the tradition of the asylum, as the patients and staff raised all of their own food.


In patients’ rooms doctors would perform procedures like the Transorbital Lobotomy and Insulin Shock Therapy, which were revolutionary for their time. The Transorbital Lobotomy was practiced by Dr. Walter Freeman. One of Freeman’s patients recounts the procedure; “Dr. Freeman would strap you down on a stretcher and give you an electric shock,” he says. “Then, Dr. Freeman would take a surgical instrument, which later became known as an icepick, and insert it just above the eyeball. Afterwards, Dr. Freeman would use the tool to remove patients frontal lobes.” The procedure often left patients in a comatose or mentally challenged state.


Insulin Shock Therapy was practiced by psychiatrist, Manfred Sakel to treat Schizophrenia. In this procedure, medical staff would inject heavy doses of insulin, causing patients to have seizures. Seizures were seen as the best way to calm patients down, as they result in fatigue.

I am saddened to know that patients endured procedures like these. However, I am glad that the memory of the patients lives on. The asylum started falling out of favor in the late 1980’s. In the years that followed, the community and state would debate the demolition or preservation of Building 50. The Grand Traverse Commons is a wonderful example of how society can turn wreckage into resonance.


Nearing the end of my time at Historic Barns Park, I was able to strike up a conversation with Crew Leader, Zach Watson. I asked him his thoughts on how the medical staff could have treated the patients as they did. His response was: “People aren’t used to differences.” Minutes later, I said goodbye to Zach and headed to my car. As I did so, he revved up the lawnmower beside me. On the way back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel like I was bull riding. In an instant, my Mother’s words came back to me, You are there to show your work, what people with disabilities experience on a daily basis.


Many people would complain about having to experience rough terrain, so that they could write about the work of their co-workers. I never have. In my mind, I’ve made a commitment to the job I have. Ride em’ cowboy. Live life to the fullest.

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