CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - You Don't Have to be Crazy to Enter the Old Weston Asylum


By Jack Cawthon

The Little Woman (Let me say here that this doesn't denigrate women. I found, at a yard sale, a delightful book, A Field Guide to the Little People, by Nancy Arrowsmith, with quaint drawings and sprightly entries about the antics of the Little People, who most often appear to persons of Celtic descent. There are good ones, I mean little waifs, not Celts, not to say there are not good Celts, heck, you know what I mean, and bad ones, so one must always be aware not to offend and to be on the right side of the coin. Most dreamers, and, I suppose poets, see them without problem, and as far as women of five feet or so, height, not podiatric, I've seen plenty. But I wish you wouldn't interrupt when I'm trying to spin a story.)

As I was saying, before I was interrupted, the Little Woman had a birthday recently, and sensitive, thoughtful man that I am I wanted to do something special for her. Oh, I could have presented her with materialist gifts, but you know what the Good Book says about that, or at least I think it does, and being a poet myself, but I like only the stuff that rhymes, I wanted to do something really unique.

'm going to take you on a tour of the old Weston State Hospital," I proclaimed proudly. "Are you insane?", she asked rhetorically, as I could see by the glint in her eyes that this was something that she had always wished for.

I had read that tours were being conducted on weekends at the old institution (not to be confused with the one in Morgantown where I served time), and I have always, for some odd reason, been drawn to that place, called the largest cut-stone building in the world (I suppose not counting Texas).

Over the years, it has been called "lunatic" and "insane asylum," until the term "State Hospital" was applied, either as the world became more humane, or else did the AMA. Construction began in 1858 but was halted by the Civil War, with completion not until 1880. The old facility was closed in 1994 after a new hospital, the William R. Sharpe, Jr. Hospital, was constructed on part of the original grounds.

During the 1950s the population soared to around 2,500, but declined steadily until the close with around 150. It wasn't that people became saner, as you must well know by personal observation, but that laws were changed and modern treatments formulated and so a lot of the "insane" became what today might be called "street people" or some, "homeless." Some might argue that all was not progress.

I can remember driving by on our frequent shopping to Weston and seeing people wandering aimlessly over the spacious lawn, or simply clinging to the wrought iron fence staring into the distance or speaking with unknown beings, perhaps seeing Little People all around them.

The common saying around Glenville of "putting someone in Weston" was well understood without expansion, or if some prominent person disappeared for a spell, he (I don't remember any women, which may explain their craftiness or godliness, which I certainly won't argue here) might be said to be in the "Medical Center," which everyone knew meant "drying out."

Since 1994 folks in Weston (city) have been trying to find a use which might preserve the site and bring in money also. There have been various proposals, some seeming soundly financed, that have fizzled. There were plans for a resort (yeah, right!), a museum, and numerous others, such as a bed and breakfast (a BIG bed and breakfast), down to mine which didn't fly very high, as a spacious dormitory for women, with appropriate fees for a tour for outsiders with a bed and breakfast included.

All was pretty much going downhill, until, guess who stepped in: our good, 'ol Senator Byrd, and if we ever turn him out of office before what can be hoped Strom Thurmond lifetime, then we all should be committed and that would solve the major problem with the space required. Senator Byrd obtained a $750,000 grant, which was matched by the state, provided $1.5 million for much needed repairs and maintenance. This will go far in stopping current water damage and other deterioration, but won't be enough to for stopping it entirely.

The grants will be administered by the State Historic Preservation office working with a local Weston Hospital Revitalization committee. It is this later group that decided on opening the historic facility for tours by the public.

Tours are conducted on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning at noon, and there are several guides, all volunteers, so there is little waiting. So, on a bright sunlit Saturday the Little Woman (see explanatory opening), as I had promised, began our tour. We had an excellent guide, who answered questions informally and knew much history. Some of the structure is off-limits because of deterioration and fire marshal rules, but you can get a feel of what it might have been like, of course, using much imagination, of commitment to the "asylum," whether sane or not, and many were not, but could become so with a few days and nights, I'm certain.

It was fairly easy to dispose of unwanted baggage in the "good old days," especially if you had a nagging wife (sorry, this was before equal rights), or an aging relative who had accessible bank accounts. In the excellent booklet on sale, A Short History of Weston Hospital, there are three columns listed for reasons for admission, and, sorry to say, I could have qualified on bad habits alone, which I won't go into here. And you all know how sane I am!

Anyway, the Little Woman came away impressed, as she asked the guide if someone might be allowed to stay for a night or so, you know, just to get the hang of environment, and I saw that familiar glint in her eyes. I was somewhat concerned on reflection, as now women have gained equal rights.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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