T. L. Bowen
It is not mentioned in any official report of Central Louisiana State Hospital, yet is was an interesting part of the institution’s past and developed early in the hospital’s history.
“Little Chicago” was the name of a special area of the hospital, the trash dump, the name deriving from the fact that it was located behind the cattle and mule pens. Approximately one hundred acres in size, “Little Chicago” was covered by tall pines and heavy underbrush. It was hilly, with deep ravines, ideal for isolated camps.
Over the years certain patients built camps in the area, a self-contained community. These men had hospital work assignments, usually in the dairy or the maintenance department, which allowed some freedom to know the area. They would spend their off duty hours and weekends at their camp and return to the ward at night. The group worked out its own destiny within the hospital organization. While most men stayed on the wards and became institutionalized and regressed, these men determined their own direction. The trash dump provided them with all the materials needed.
They built camp houses, laid out and fenced gardens and animal pens. Most men built individual camps, help for the heavier jobs being always available from a neighbor. About twenty-five men had camps at any one time, and over the years about one hundred seventy-five or two hundred were accepted members of the “Little Chicago” group.
The camp might well have been the first integrated community in this section of the country. Black and white men worked together with tolerance and understanding. Respect was shown regarding property. However, membership was closely guarded and the group decided who would be allowed to move in. Admission was controlled by cooperating with the hospital. If a new patient wanted to move in and was not approved by the group, the patient would be reported to the supervisor as “acting crazy and should be locked up.”
A reason was needed for the patients to be in the dump area, and an assignment to keep the fire going to burn trash provided an officially approved job.
The supervisor of the male units was responsible for these men and they cooperated with him. If a patient eloped to this area, they would bring him back to the hospital. Most of the time they could operate freely with no interference from hospital officials. What could not happen was to embarrass the chief supervisor. The men of “Little Chicago” always had fresh vegetables, duck or rabbit for their supervisor. With such mutual cooperation established permission could be obtained to spend a night in camp for special occasions. Of course, if a pig was roasted, choice portions were sent to the night supervisor.
A member could make wine at his camp. The needed ingredients were obtained from the hospital kitchens by trading produce. With no money all they had to trade with was the produce from gardens and flocks. They were skilled traders and had no trouble in obtaining the necessary items. The finished product had to be carefully controlled so as not to allow other patients access to the wine. If this happened and a patient got drunk and caused trouble, the supervisor of men would be called to account. Incidents of this nature happened from time to time and restrictions were imposed because these incidents would come to the attention of the doctors and nurses.
Central Louisiana State Hospital opened in 1906 and rapidly became over crowded. The camps, although primitive, were better than staying on the ward. The camps allowed the men to maintain their integrity and a sense of purpose.
After an “outsider” became acquainted with and as accepted by the men they would welcome him into their camp, “You are just in time for coffee or gumbo.”
When asked what they liked about “Little Chicago”, the camp dwellers would reply, “My own camp, freedom to do things, good friends down there, I like to live in the woods.”
In 1952 hospital expansion took one half of the camp area. Some elaborate camp complexes were torn down. One man in 1956 had poultry pens over one hundred yards long and four hundred chickens, ducks and guineas. He sold eggs to employees and to customers in Pineville. He would order a truck load of chicken feed at a time from town and pay cash. He had two patients hired to help him with his operation.
One grand old man, Uncle Toby, had been in the hospital many years and had a fine camp and always a story to tell. He related that as a young man he worked as a logger in Mississippi. His friends wanted him to run for the legislature. He was willing but “drew down” in favor of a young lawyer named Bilbo.
One man had his camp catch on fire and burn down. It was completely destroyed and looking over the ashes he commented, “I will just have to start over.” In a short time, with the help of his neighbors, his new camp was up.
By 1970 only eight camps were in use. Central was a different hospital and new programs had sent many of these men home or to a nursing home. Case No. 12 was sent to a nursing home at age ninety-seven. He had made bird houses and tool boxes at his camp. Some of the hospital employees were afraid that he would not have material to work with at the nursing home. Scrap lumber was taken to him and the home provided him a place to work.
Before the end of 1970 the last camp houses were torn down to make room for new buildings. In 1968 a start had been made in cleaning out the scrap accumulated since the hospital opened. Five hundred tons of scrap metal were sold in the summer of 1968.
“Little Chicago” is a memory and a fascinating chapter in the annals of Central State Hospital.
What did these men have to be able to work their own life styles? Free spirits in the midst of tight controls, they did not regress but were able to live meaningful and productive lives, a reminder to all of us that:
Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A book of rules;
And each must make
Ere life in flown,
A stumbling block
Or a stepping stone.”
– R. L. Sharpe