Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
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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.
By the late 1930s, with tuberculosis reaching epidemic proportions and no cure or preventative in sight, it was clear that a much larger facility was needed. State Sen. Leo F. Nyberg of Helena — a TB sufferer who would eventually die at the sanatorium — worked to pass funding for a new main hospital and other buildings on the site. The state eventually appropriated $1.2 million for the project, with the federal Public Works Administration kicking in another $950,000. The 140,000-square-foot main hospital opened in 1940, and increased the number of beds at the sanatorium to more than 1,100. Nyberg didn't live to see the building that bears his name completed. A bas relief plaque honoring him hangs in the lobby.
In the Victorian era, the classic treatment for tuberculosis had been bed rest and fresh air. With the advent of more adventurous surgery techniques in the 1920s and '30s however, tactics for fighting TB took a turn to the horrific. With doctors believing that the lungs should be allowed to rest in order to heal, surgeries then in vogue included clipping and pulling out the phrenic nerve — the long, spaghetti-like cord that connects the spinal column to the diaphragm, usually while the patient was awake so he could tell the surgeon whether he was prodding at the right nerve. Other treatments had doctors collapsing the lung and temporarily filling the chest cavity with sterilized ping pong balls in order to keep the lung deflated, and thoracoplasty, in which a large chunk of the ribs and muscles of the chest were removed to make the afflicted lung collapse. Many of these treatments — such as they were — were pioneered or refined at the Arkansas State TB Sanatorium, which quickly became a model facility copied around the U.S. and the world.
That was all coming to an end by the 1950s, however, with the advent of antibiotic treatments to fight TB. By 1960, the number of patients had dwindled to a fraction of what had been seen only 10 years before. The last patients were discharged in 1972, and the Sanatorium was officially closed in 1973, reopening first as the Arkansas Children's Colony and then as the Booneville Human Development Center. Today, offices of the BHDC occupy a portion of the first floor of the Nyberg. The rest of the building is gone to ruin.
Inside, the patient rooms — row upon row — are all empty, and the once spic and span floors are hazed with dust. In the old operating suites, the ceilings have collapsed. A local high school has staged a haunted house in the basement during Halloween for the past couple of years, and the walls there are festooned with fake blood and horror show bric-a-brac. It is the work of a generation that has been blessedly divorced from death, and never known the word epidemic.
In the old morgue downstairs, near the ramp where the hearses once idled under a covered walkway so they couldn't be seen from the patients' windows, the great doors of the body coolers stand ajar. Nearby is the flotsam and jetsam of 70 years of life and death on The Hill: jumbles of file cabinets, beds, old bicycles, plaster molds, barber chairs, slides and random medical equipment long since obsolete. One room holds nothing but busted cases of Aqua Velva and Ace combs. Upstairs, there is the smell of age and decay, and birds nest in the elevator well.
On either end of the sixth floor, there is a small open sun deck, surrounded by a rail. On the roof at night, the Nyberg Building is far enough from the city that the stars are like pinpricks in black velvet. It is easy to imagine some dying man there; slipped away from his keepers long after midnight to see the sky. The wind there is clear and pure, with the Milky Way a dim smear across the heavens, and the lights of Booneville scattered on the horizon like a dream.
Richard Myers is one of the last alive who called the sanatorium home. He's 73 now, and still lives in Booneville. A few days after the Allies declared victory over Germany in Europe, a big black car pulled up to his parents' sharecropper shack on Ditch 40 between Kaiser and Osceola and took him away to live on The Hill. Though he had no symptoms, he had contracted TB of the left lung. He was seven years old. He wouldn't see his family again for four years.
Though he was eventually moved to the Masonic Building where other children with TB were kept, for the first years of his stay at the sanatorium Myers lived alone in a room on the third floor of the Nyberg Building. He doesn't know exactly how long he was there. He said the tedium of life at the sanatorium, where most of his days were spent confined to a bed, sapped him of all concept of time.
"I've often said that every day in our lives was a Tuesday," Myers said, "because nothing ever happens on a Tuesday."
For a poor boy from the Delta who had never lived in a house with electricity or running water, Myers said his life at the Sanatorium was the best of times, and the worst of times. He had all the good food he could eat, but the boredom gnawed at him. With day after day spent staring at the same thing — same wall, same door, same rectangle of sky through the window — he said most of his childhood memories are focused on sound.
"It's really strange thinking back on it," Myers said. "I suppose the worst part was the dying. That was a part of your existence. People died almost daily. I can remember laying there in bed at night, listening to people down the hall. It always began with a long coughing spell, then it would turn into a kind of gurgling, raspy sound. Then it would get deathly quiet. You knew what had happened."
Myers came to know the routine of death at the Sanatorium. When someone died, the nurses began closing the big oak doors of the patient rooms, one after another, their closing sending a deep and ominous drumbeat up the echoing hallways. Myers said he would wait until his door was closed, then he would jump out of bed, lie on the floor, and put his eye to the crack under the sill.
"When that stillness came at the end of that, they'd push those gurneys down the hallway and of course the wheels would wobble," he said. "You could see those wheels go by making that wobbling, squeaking sound. It would be gone for a moment, and when it came back with a body on it, it was loaded and the wheels would run straight. It didn't make the sound."
Spared the more horrific measures taken against TB (his treatment consisted solely of good food and bed rest) Myers was transferred to the children's unit at the Masonic Building. He and the other children — with the boys and girls strictly divided except during the four hours of school every day — almost never left the building.
"It was a very small world," he said. "You could walk across it in two minutes. You didn't go off the grounds. The only time we left was on Friday night, when we'd walk up to the commons building and see a movie. Everything was there: you ate there, you went to school there. You never left that place."
Discharged from the sanatorium when he was 14, Myers eventually served 22 years in the Air Force. When he retired, he moved back to Booneville and went to work at what was by then the former sanatorium.
"I was home," Myers said. "I came home. I know it sounds strange, and I can't explain it, but that place had such a hold on me. That's all I knew. There was really no difference in being in the Masonic and being in the Air Force. I was totally institutionalized by the time I was 14 years old."
Myers retired from the BHDC in 2002. He said he still goes up and drives the old roads sometimes. The building and grounds were groomed and immaculate when he lived there — a pristine, perfect world, he said. The decay he sees makes him sad. Back when local preservationists began talking about building a museum at the sanatorium some years ago, Myers went to one of their first meetings. He said he was the only patient there that night. He hasn't been back. His feelings about The Hill, he said, are conflicted. He thinks of it as home. But he also believes it should be leveled, stone by stone; returned to the windswept mountaintop it was a hundred years ago.
"To me, I think the place should be torn down and forgotten," he said. "It was a terrible place. I don't know why you would want to remember that much suffering and death and devastation — why you would make a monument out of that. It destroyed thousands and thousands of lives."