The buildings are mostly abandoned now. Thank God. Thank God.
The long roof of the nurse's dormitory is pocked with gaping holes. The old dairy barns and pig barns that fed the pale multitudes have long since fallen into ruin. The main hospital — the Nyberg Building, a tenth of a mile long, six stories high; an Art Deco colossus capable of housing over a thousand souls — has been largely given over to dust and the occasional pigeon.
There is a sadness there. It's palpable. It makes you believe crackpot theories about how buildings become batteries, charged with misery. In the upper floors of the Nyberg — empty room stacked upon empty room — the sorrow cooks out of the walls like dark heat. There is a constant feeling there: that the doorways are filled with eyes.
One hundred years ago this year, the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium near the sleepy hamlet of Booneville began accepting patients. The place eventually grew into a self-contained city, with its own farms and fire station, orchards and laundry, school and newspaper. It was a place where those with the deadly and contagious disease could be segregated and — to the extent which they could before the sacrament of antibiotics were visited on us all — treated. In a very real sense, it was built to be a place where those who lived there never had to leave. Uncounted thousands of them never did.
On Sept. 18, the city will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sanatorium by opening a new museum full of artifacts from there. For Logan County, the sanatorium was a place of community prosperity — a recession-proof industry for over 60 years. For the few remaining old timers who lived there as patients, however, it's a place of conflicted memories.
Even now, Booneville is hard to get to, which is probably why it was selected as the site for the sanatorium in the first place. Back before the interstates, it was a long, quiet, dusty drive to the sanatorium from little towns all over Arkansas. Today, you leave I-40 at Ozark and drive south for another 45 minutes, down a winding two-laner that descends through fields and forest land.
The Sanatorium — still called The Hill by locals — is on the outskirts of town. You see the water towers first, then the tall smokestack. A switchback road brings you to the main gate. Soon enough, the massive, blonde-brick Nyberg Building looms out of the pines. Now the site of the Booneville Human Development Center, which houses developmentally disabled adults, the sanatorium grounds are a faded ghost of their former self, with only a few of the buildings occupied and used today.
Act 378, which approved the establishment of an Arkansas State TB sanatorium, was signed by Gov. George Donaghey in the spring of 1909 and allotted $50,000 for building the sanatorium and another $30,000 for upkeep. The city of Booneville, then a farming community in Logan County, offered to donate 970 acres on nearby Pott's Ridge for the project, and the decision was made to locate the sanatorium there.
Though the original group of buildings at the sanatorium was modest, the compound grew with the disease. In 1913, the state appropriated funds for a 24-bed hospital, and the next 30 years saw construction rarely stop on The Hill, including a state of the art dairy with electric milking machines, employee cottages, a guinea pig nursery to supply research and testing animals for the hospital, a water treatment facility and housing for children with TB paid for by the Masonic Lodge.