State run hospitals for Georgia’s mentally ill residents were a component of the social reform movement tackled by the state legislature in the early 1800s. Georgia Gov. William Schley, who served from 1835-37, was urged to secure the necessary funding by two physicians, Tomlinson Fort and Benjamin White, to purchase the first 40 acres of what would become the second largest insane asylum in the country.
The land overlooked Milledgeville, the first planned capital of Georgia and home of the original governor’s mansion. The first two buildings, for administration and for patients, were completed in 1842 and the first patient was admitted in December of that year.
Central State Hospital, the name given the institution in 1967, evolved from a modest facility to a small town, with a population of more than 12,000 in 1964.
Originally named the Georgia Lunatic Asylum, sensitivity to the stigma of mental illness effected a name change in 1897 to the Georgia State Sanitarium, and another in 1928 to Milledgeville State Hospital. It was the economic engine for Baldwin County until the decentralization of the treatment for mentally ill patients by the state, during the early 1970s.
Most of the buildings stand empty as proud, silent sentries, guarding a fertile history that may never be told. The future for repurposing the buildings and the campus is uncertain. However, to lose any of the physical or archived history of the hospital would erase the stories of many individuals whose lives were intertwined with the hospital, either as patients or as staff.
A NEWCOMER’S PERSPECTIVE
Although he did not grow up in Milledgeville and has lived in New York and on the west coast, the story of a great grandparent who died at the sanitarium after spending 32 years there as a patient, piqued the curiosity of Edwin Atkins, whose family was from Georgia. When he retired two years ago from the film industry, he moved to Milledgeville and has plundered the internet, antique shops and flea markets to find personal diaries, trustee reports and artifacts associated with the institution.
Dismayed that there was not a support group for CSH, Atkins started a Facebook page, Friends of Central State Hospital, which now has 7,000 followers who have reconnected with relatives of past patients, with physicians and nurses, and have shared stories with family members of many employees who considered the hospital — and the surrounding village of Hardwick — their home.
One of the people Atkins met on the site was Ross Carnes, whose entire family had worked for the hospital. Carnes grew up as an Air Force brat who only visited Milledgeville during holidays, but he remembers many of the stories recounted by relatives who worked there.
When Atkins discovered Carnes was a retired illustrator and graphic designer, he enlisted his help in illustrating an adult coloring book that would be entertaining, educational and could raise funds to promote the efforts of the Friends of CSH.
COMMITMENT TO THE PROJECT
The finished coloring book, “Colorful Moments of Central State Hospital,” was unveiled Sept. 23 at the Ampersand [&] Guild with Carnes on hand to autograph books and to see the pages — that had been colored by area artists — on display in the gallery. The book is a compilation of sketches of the buildings, the activities, the people who worked with patients, and the principals that contributed to the comprehensive treatment of the mentally ill.
Carnes has captured the emotions of patients venturing out for visits to Milledgeville; participating in activities on the grounds; gathering pecans from the orchard or anticipating a December visit from Santa Claus. He has drawn the faces of compassionate physicians, of cooks working in the “largest kitchen in the world” and of nurses efficiently making their rounds.
For Carnes, who retired due to debilitating arthritis, this was a laborious project that involved manipulating images to create the composites that fill each page. He had photographs from which to draw some of the historic figures and used the faces of friends to add humor and humanity to some of his drawings. His partner, Sean Thomas, was the model for Santa Claus, a role he plays well in their hometown of Georgetown, Texas.
His illness has curtailed much of Carnes’ drawing. However, his prolific imagination has found another outlet in writing spirited fantasies of the netherworld. His novel, “Whisper of Atlantis,” and the coloring book, published by Atkins, are available on Amazon.com.
Although Carnes never lived in Milledgeville and Atkins is a newcomer to the area, they were equally committed to starting a dialogue and to creating a pictorial history that would be accessible to anyone with an interest in the hospital and in its history.