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About The Ridges

by Kimberly Leupo

Opening its doors, the Athens Lunatic Asylum welcomed its first patient in 1874. This state-of-the-art mental hospital was based on the design of renowned architect Thomas Kirkbride and embraced the current societal trends toward institutionalizing the insane. The hospital began as a type of long- term care for those not easily accepted or able to function in society. The typical meaning of “asylum” at the time was a safe haven with little likelihood of departure.

The original buildings housed 544 patients. Gradually, seven cottages were added to provide housing for a population that was continually increasing at a rapid rate. By the 1930s the patient population had reached over 1,600 and continued to grow until the hospital reached its peak in 1953 with 1,749 patients. The reason for the ever increasing population was the lack of criteria for admittance; patients in the asylum included those that were epileptic, menopausal, alcohol and tubercular victims, and, also, seasonal visitors that otherwise would be homeless. Unfortunately hospital staffing could not keep up with the escalating patient populations; about half of the wards had no more than one attendant to 40-50 patients. Where more care was needed, there was one attendant for every 10-12 patients. Hospital overcrowding and insufficient staff numbers resulted in a dramatic change of care and the revisiting of old procedures.

Over the years the hospital expanded into farming, attempting to keep pace with the skyrocketing patient population, and land was added as it became available. During its population peak in the 1950s, the hospital maintained about 78 buildings with land holdings reaching more than 1000 acres. Most of the land was used for gardening and to raise agricultural products to support the patient population. The hospital boasted a large dairy for milk and butter supplies, and also successfully operated orchards, greenhouses, gardens, vineyards, a piggery and raised small animals and chickens. The institution became nearly self-sufficient with coal for heating about the only large cash purchase. The water came from springs on the property, but as the patient population increased wells had to be dug. Ice used by the original asylum was carved from the lakes, and prior to 1895 kerosene lamps and lanterns were used to light the buildings.

State policy and public attitudes toward the mentally ill are reflected in the changes in name the institution underwent in its 125-year existence. In 1874, it opened as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, under the control of the local community. In 1911, named the Athens Asylum for the Insane, the in stitution transferred control to the Ohio Board of Administration. In 1921 it was placed under the newly created Department of Publi c Welfare. By the end of the World War II, the name had been shortened to the Athens State Hospital, and it was under the control of the Ohio Department of Mental Hygiene and Corrections.


In 1968 the name was changed to the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center. When retarded patients at the Gallipolis center were moved to Athens in 1975, the Center became the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health and Retardation Center. The word “Athens” gradually replaced Southeastern Ohio in the name. In 1980 it became the Athens Mental Health and Development Center, and, in 1981, when retarded patients were sent to other institutions it once again became the Athens Mental Health Center.      

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