Willamette University

Kylie Pine ’06 and the Untold Stories of the Oregon State Hospital

By Sarah Evans

Kylie Pine ’06 will never forget her first glimpse of the Gold Room.

Located in the basement of the Oregon State Hospital’s former administration building, the room — about the size of a Willamette classroom — was crammed full of wicker wheelchairs, desks, cabinets, chairs of many shapes and sizes, sewing machines, medical equipment, and cardboard boxes containing who knows what.

“There was as much stuff as they could possibly fit in, with these little aisles carved out, sometimes precariously,” Pine remembers. “It was a mess. And it wasn’t gold at all. No one knows why it had that name.”

The 2,000 items squeezed inside represented more than a century of history for an institution that, despite its notable role in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and its prominent place as the state’s public psychiatric institution, remained a mystery to many Oregonians.

It was up to Pine and other volunteers to figure out what was in all those boxes, where each piece of furniture came from and what purpose it had served. Three years of work would eventually lead to a museum that opened in October 2012 — a permanent place to tell the forgotten stories of those who had lived and worked at the hospital, and a space to talk freely about issues that might otherwise be taboo. How society deals with mental illness, for example, or how it makes peace with a history of treatment practices that today might seem misguided or cruel.

Pine saw the Gold Room as an opportunity. She’d faced similar challenges before, both in her job as collections manager at the local heritage center and in her days as a Willamette student aspiring to museum work. Plus, the project hit right at the center of what makes history so fascinating to her.

“I’m really interested in the physical remnants of what we leave behind,” she says. “Instead of just reading about history and going through historians’ stories, I’m more interested in the physical, tangible portion of things.”

From Student to Curator

Her entire life, Pine hasn’t moved too far on the map. She grew up in Salem near Bush’s Pasture Park, went to Willamette for a degree in American studies, and got her first post-graduation job across 12th Street at what was then the Mission Mill Museum (today’s Willamette Heritage Center at The Mill).

The 28-year-old prefers to travel back through time. Inspired by her great-grandmother’s stories about growing up in Oregon, Pine developed an early passion for local history that led her to volunteer as a teenager at Mission Mill.

When it came time for college, Pine’s reasons for choosing Willamette were unconventional, but they made perfect sense to her. “I may have fallen a little bit more in love with the history of the school than the school itself,” she says. “There’s a really good tie-in between the early history in this area and the school, so it seemed like a good place to apply.”

Willamette also held a solid spot in Pine’s own family history. Her grandparents — Robert ’50 and Doris (Walser) O’Neill ’50 — met at the university. Several decades later, so did her parents — Richard ’82, MBA’82 and Debra (O’Neill) Pine MBA’82.

Pine turned her captivation with Willamette’s past into a central part of her studies. For one class project, she researched and documented the origins of items in the Hallie Ford Museum of Art’s Native American collection.

“The context she has provided to the native collection enriches the experience of native community members who want to access our collection now and for generations in the future,” says anthropology professor Rebecca Dobkins, who was Pine’s advisor.

Pine also interned at the museum, where she catalogued items and registered new donations — a job she continued for several months after graduation while the museum awaited the arrival of a new collection curator, Jonathan Bucci.

“If she hadn’t been doing it, the museum either wouldn’t have been able to continue collecting during that time, or things would have been a mess when I arrived,” Bucci says. “She’s always very professional, thorough and efficient. Her understanding of history helps her do her job better.”

About a week before Pine graduated, Mission Mill offered her a job as volunteer coordinator. With the exception of heading to the University of Washington for two years to earn a master’s in museology, she has worked across the street in various capacities ever since.

Her current position as collections manager means she’s in charge of 28 volunteers working to make sure the 230,000-plus items in the heritage center’s collection — all focused on the Marion County area and donated by the public — are catalogued and can be accessed when needed.

“We’ve got about 50 years of backlog that we’re working on cataloguing, plus people are bringing in new things every day,” she says.

As if her work at the heritage center didn’t keep her busy enough, Pine also took on a volunteer position in 2009 to create an inventory of items collected through the years at the Oregon State Hospital.

One room in particular awaited her attention.

‘Kind of Like Archaeology’

The Oregon State Hospital opened in 1883 with 370 patients who traveled by train to Salem from a private facility in Portland. After peaking at 3,545 patients in the late 1950s, the hospital’s population steadily declined to today’s number of about 600.

In the 1970s, Oregon passed a law requiring that all historic properties be inventoried and managed by the state. At the state hospital, employees started saving things they thought might be important someday, storing them in the Gold Room and other places around the campus.

With the 2000 closing of Salem’s Fairview Training Center, a facility for people with developmental disabilities, staff members brought that institution’s stored property to the state hospital and dumped it in the Gold Room. The same thing happened when the Eastern Oregon Training Center closed in 2009.

The room became a mishmash of items from multiple locations, some listed on incomplete inventories, but most untracked and unlabeled.

When Pine came along, her first task was to number the artifacts and create one massive inventory. “We tried to note if they were listed on past inventories to find clues to where the materials originated or how they were used,” she says. “It was kind of like archaeology down there.”

Some of the items had obvious purposes, but others — particularly outdated medical equipment — were more mysterious. Even with simpler artifacts like bottles of medicine or scales, Pine wasn’t always sure how or why they were used.

She and other volunteers spent countless hours searching for information online. They used a federal patent and trademark database to match numbers printed on the items with their potential uses. They looked for names of companies that manufactured the pieces to learn date ranges of when they might have been created. Pine kept a blog, posting pictures of items and asking if the public knew anything about them.

As they researched, several Salemites who had helped put the hospital campus on the National Register of Historic Places were working toward a new goal: a museum to highlight the artifacts and the stories behind them. The state was in the process of replacing the old hospital buildings, which had been declared dangerous and dilapidated, with a new, stateof- the-art facility. But as the former institution was razed, museum organizers wanted to preserve and share its history.

“It’s important to bring the public back onto the campus of the hospital and give them a feeling that this is a safe place to be, a place where they can go and learn more about something they didn’t know much about,” says Hazel Patton, president of the museum board.

“We also want to educate folks about mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it, and about the different forms of treatment over the years and how we’ve come to where we are now.”

Pine’s experience and degree in museology made her a natural fit to help.

“Kylie wrote our exhibit plan,” Patton says. “We fleshed it out and some things changed, but the basic plan is Kylie’s. She’s very creative, so her plan had some extremely innovative aspects to it.”

No Longer Forgotten

Museum visitors encounter one of Pine’s ideas immediately after paying their entry fee. Each receives a badge identifying a patient or staff member whose story is on display somewhere in the museum. Like a treasure hunt, visitors can search for that person as they peruse the exhibits. It’s the first of many ways Pine tried to personalize the experience for visitors, while simultaneously bringing attention to the stories of people who might otherwise have been forgotten.

“You can’t find a person today who hasn’t been touched somehow by issues of mental health or addiction,” Pine says. “They are affected, or their family or someone else they know is affected. The idea of trying to combat the stigma of that and find a place to talk about it is powerful.

To the right of the museum’s entry is the section Pine coordinated: exhibits about why people came to the hospital and what types of treatment they received. Until the 1950s, most patients — including some as young as 4 — were committed voluntarily or through civil commitments, where someone brought complaints against them and asked that a judge commit them to public care after a doctor’s exam.

Museum visitors examining the large posters listing “causes of insanity” for patients from the late 1800s will find many familiar “ailments”: business trouble, childbirth, disappointment in love, menopause, overwork, worry, old age. Today’s hospital residents, in contrast, are only adults who have been found guilty of a crime except for insanity, or those who a court rules dangerous to themselves or others or unable to provide for their own basic needs.

Sprinkled amidst the chairs, desks and beds on display are small placards detailing patients’ stories. Finding these stories was as difficult as identifying the artifacts in the Gold Room, Pine says.

She started by examining early hospital admission ledgers located in the Oregon State Archives (she had to limit her search to public records because of privacy issues). She scoured the ledgers for unique names and people who had an interesting reason for commitment. Then she searched other public records that might shed light on those patients’ lives. She looked through census records, military records, newspaper articles from the patients’ hometowns. Hours and hours of searching often ended with no information.

But her endless sleuthing also yielded intriguing — and sometimes heartbreaking — stories. Like Mary, a Native American patient from the 1880s who “talk[ed] incoherently in broken English and Jargon” — her language was likely Chinook Jargon, and she was discharged after seven months when doctors concluded she was not insane. Or Robert W.B. Riggle, sent to the hospital in 1920 after being “gassed in the war.” He committed suicide after only three months.

Pine also researched displays on former treatment methods. Visitors can learn about everything from shock treatment to restraint and seclusion to lobotomies to cosmotherapy, “where you go and get a facial and get your hair done and you feel better,” Pine says.

“A lot of the hype that’s gone around about the hospital has been negative, about the horrible conditions, which is true, but it’s a place where worthwhile things happened, too,” Pine says. “We’d like to encourage a more balanced discussion. I would like the museum to be a place where people come and talk about what happened to them, and to start some dialogues about how we can change and improve the system that’s in place.”

What started for Pine as an excavation of the mysterious Gold Room evolved into a new passion and mission: educating the public about an issue that impacts everyone.

And with her thoughtfulness and care for the task, she gained some unintended pupils as well.

“She’s taught us what it means to be a curator of these artifacts,” Patton says. “We look at these wonderful artifacts with different eyes as we realize how truly important they are, not just to tell our story now, but to preserve that story for the next generation.”


What's This Object?

Despite the tireless sleuthing of Kylie Pine and other volunteers, the identity and origin of numerous Oregon State Hospital artifacts remain a mystery. Here are two examples. Do you recognize them or have any ideas about how or where they might have been used? Contact the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health at oshmuseum@gmail.com; 971-971-599-1674; or by mail at P.O. Box 851, Salem, OR 97301.

Item 1

Item 1: This 3 1/2-inch-long item labeled with a curious set of letters and numbers appears to be part of a medical device. It was the 100th item that volunteers catalogued in the hospital’s Gold Room in 2009.


Item 2

Item 2: This 10-inch-high electric lamp-like object, also from the Gold Room, has a slot on top that could have been used to insert slides for projection. However, the device contains no other mechanisms for holding slides in place.


About the Museum

The Oregon State Hospital MuseumThe Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health is located at 2600 Center St. NE in Salem, on the first floor of the hospital’s Kirkbride Building. Hours are Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m.

Learn more — and read Pine’s blog about the artifacts — on the museum’s website: oshmuseum.org.

Pine stands in front of a wall-sized photo of an old hospital hallway.

Pine stands in front of a wall-sized photo of an old hospital hallway.

Portion of the Gold Room

Portion of the Gold Room

Strap of a strait jacket, for better or worse the symbol of an era

Strap of a strait jacket, for better or worse the symbol of an era

Vials of oils and chemicals, presumably for treating various ailments

Vials of oils and chemicals, presumably for treating various ailments