One of the sorrows of southern Iowa, that abandoned and deteriorating campus of vast brick buildings in west Knoxville deployed with military precision across tree-shaded lawns. Until 2009, when all but outpatient services were moved to Des Moines, this had been since the 1920s the Knoxville Veterans Administration Medical Center.
But before that, commencing in 1892, the state had developed the Industrial Home for the Adult Blind here --- a failed social experiment intended to provide employment and homes in an institutional setting for sight-impaired Iowans. This is a photo of the first major building on the old campus, constructed in 1892.
The Industrial Home for the Adult Blind didn't quite work out, so in 1904 another social experiment was launched on the same site when legislation recycled the campus by declaring that it "shall hereafter be called the State Hospital for Inebriates and shall be used for the detention care and treatment of all male dipsomaniacs, inebriates, and persons addicted to the excessive use of morphine, cocaine or other narcotic drugs.”
Chariton Mayor George W. Alexander was sentenced to up to a year here in 1906 in the hope it finally would would dry out one of the city's most popular --- and most frequently inebriated --- citizens. Other city officials treated "Col. Alexander" gently, as preachers and newspaper editors fumed, and it was here that George finally was forced to acknowledge that he couldn't govern Chariton from a distance and resigned.
This experiment didn't work out either and in 1920, the expanded and abandoned campus became a state home for disabled soldiers and, in 1922, the federal government purchased the entire 345-acre operation from the state and turned it into a veterans hospital.
In 1907, as the hospital for inebriates was just getting off the ground, Chariton's Dr. John Alexander McKlveen --- then serving in the state senate --- was assigned to visit and evaluate the new institution. The Chariton Leader of Feb. 7, 1907, published his report under the less than sensitive headline, "The State Jag House."
"Senator J.A. McKlveen, of this county, was on a special committee to visit the asylum for inebriates at Knoxville," the Leader reported, "and makes the following report, with a recommendation for the coming year of an appropriation of $14,000.
"We visited the hospital and find that the institution invoiced June 30, 1906, about $150,000 all told. On a tour of inspection of all the buildings we found them in very excellent sanitary condition. Cleanliness appeared in all quarters and we were especially impressed by the good order of things in general. The old building that was abandoned by the Industrial School for the Blind we found in good repair; it is used for a dining room and kitchen and the chapel is located in the north wing. It will accommodate about 100 inmates, but only those who are easily managed are allowed in this part.
"We find that the board of control has erected an Administration Building which meets all the requirements. They have also a Detention Building with three floors and a basement, built of brick, stone and cement. It is fireproof. The windows are barred and it makes a very safe retreat for dangerous characters. they have a substantial power house, constructed of brick, stone and cement. It is equipped with boilers, dynamos and engines ample for the needs of the institution. The new farm barn, recently built at a cost of $4,000, has a brick basement and is modern in every respect. The water question is solved. They have two wells, 350 feet deep, finished in limestone rock. The wells test 1,700 gallons of water per hour. It is of good quality, being about neutral. We deem it advisable to erect a standpipe so that sufficient fire protection could be had in case of emergencies. The sewage plant installed last year seems to be working satisfactorily.
"We find that but little of the land is fenced sufficiently to turn livestock and would recommend to the State Board that this improvement be made as soon as possible. There are 163 acres of land connected with the hospital. Some of this is very level and needs tile drainage.
"Other parts are somewhat rough, especially the last tract acquired, it having had a race track on it at one time and it will take some work to level it down. The question of more land for agricultural purposes is a vital one. It is our opinion that there should be land enough to accommodate as much livestock as it is practical for the institution to keep. We believe they should produce their own meats; therefore we recommend the purchase of a tract of land for a hog pasture. It is our opinion that the purchase of more land will be instrumental in the future development of the institution.
"Knoxville is without doubt the Eldorado of Iowa for those who fall by the wayside.
"The hospital has a capacity of 225. We found about 150 inmates with nothing to do but pass the time away and grow fat at the expense of the state. The superintendent informs us that it costs about $23 per capita per month to maintain it in its present method of procedure. About 75 percent of the inmates are able bodied men and are capable of doing work enough to pay their way. We would recommend that labor of some kind be furnished to those who are able to work. We would suggest the purchase of a tract of land to the north of the buildings that will afford a stone quarry. Pulverized rock would be merchantable for macadamizing purposes.
"The superintendent informs us that about 10 percent of the cases committed receive permanent benefit. There is an element that is sent to the hospital that does not come under its jurisdiction. A great many hardened criminals who have been in the penitentiary, who are termed "sleepers" around the cities, are sent there to be rid of them. The influence these persons have on young fellows who have gone wrong for the first times is not the best, and we recommend that this class of patients be sent to other places.
"We, your committee, recognize the fact that the institution is a new one and that all of its departments have not been developed as would seem practical. We have the utmost confidence in the Board of Control to adjust things to a practical business basis as soon as possible."
Security, as it turns out, became a major issue at the new institution and the inmates reportedly caused the good people of Knoxville considerable discomfort --- one reason why there was only limited mourning when it was discontinued, felons returned to their prisons, those with severe addictions and mental issues relocated to other state institutions and unfortunates like George W. Alexander left to their own resources.
The V.A. hospital proved to be a far better fit --- and a major source of employment in the region. When it closed, there was indeed heartfelt mourning.