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A self-sustaining city

Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

During its 122 years, Dixmont State Hospital was like a city unto itself. It had its own rail stop, its own post office with a postmaster who lived on site. It made its own electricity, had its own water reservoir and had working farmlands, farm animals and greenhouses.

Dixmont State Hospital operated for 122 years but closed in 1984, a casualty of budget cuts and changing philosophies about the care of the mentally ill. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

A series of tunnels connected the buildings and were used to transport everything from laundry to supplies shipped in by boats on the Ohio River.

From its earliest days, Dixmont strove to be self-sufficient, but it fell onto hard times several times through its history.

Dr. Henry A. Hutchinson, superintendent from 1885 to 1945, believed in work therapy as a way to treat the mentally ill. His philosophy, similiar to the views of many mental health professionals in that era, also helped Dixmont's financial situation by providing free labor from the patients.

The patients worked in the kitchen and the laundry, cared for the farm animals and harvested fruit and crops, some of which were profitable ventures.

Dixmont's organizational employment chart, now in the archives of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, listed an extensive paid staff that included not only doctors, nurses and pharmacists, but butchers, bakers, cooks, florists, farmhands, steamfitters, electricians and plumbers, as well as a barber and a beautician.

"My grandfather, William Stroyne, was a butcher here," said Ralph Stroyne, who now owns the property, pointing to a graffiti-covered building that used to serve as a butcher shop.

"My Uncle Lou was a mechanic who fixed tractors, and my Aunt Helen was a nurse," he said. As a child, Stroyne said, he used to serve Mass as an altar boy at Dixmont's chapel. His family took in nurse boarders who worked at the facility.

Butch Murray, 59, of Emsworth, who sits in a little white house at the entrance of Dixmont, where he guards the property for Stroyne, said it was a peaceful place when the patients lived there.

"It was so well-groomed," said Murray. "They grew their own vegetables. They had horses and pigs."

Fruits and vegetables were canned for winter use. Tomato and pepper plants were sold to the public. The institution raised pigs, dairy cows and chickens. Its orchards grew apples, sour cherries, quinces, peaches and plums. A large bakery supplied rolls, cakes, doughnuts and pies.

As a child, Stroyne used to roam the woods around Dixmont and, always, he said, there were nice fragrances: the smell of flowers and orchards full of apples, cherries, quinces and peaches.

Funding and population dwindled as widespread changes in patient care were called for in both the political and medical communities, beginning in the 1960s. Dixmont closed its many doors in 1984.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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