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Jennings Sunday: Memories of 'the hospital' preserved at Muscatatuck

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BUTLERVILLE — An effort to preserve the story of the center that cared for thousands with mental disabilities for more than 80 years is underway at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex.

“We don’t want to move on without remembering this place as it was,” said David Bonnell, a staff member of the complex’s public affairs office.

In addition to their duties at what is now a military training site, Sgt. 1st Class Brad Skaggs and Bonnell are working to establish a museum that preserves the history of the Muscatatuck State Developmental Center.

Most often simply called “the hospital” by the surrounding community, the center housed and trained mentally challenged Hoosier citizens from 1919 through 2005. For decades, it was the largest employer in Jennings County.

The buildings that were once a part of the hospital are now a part of the scenario used to train soldiers and civilians to respond to emergencies in an urban setting.

A building that was constructed in 1939 as a home for the hospital’s assistant director later became the dental clinic for patients in the hospital. The building has been restored and now is used as the public affairs office for the complex.

Amid the conference room, the broadcast area and the work rooms designed to accommodate visitors, Skaggs and Bonnell also maintain what has become a museum for display of artifacts from the hospital years.

“Sgt. Skaggs already had this started by the time I came on board,” Bonnell said.

“He started collecting things that were found laying around the old buildings when the military took over. The more things that were found, the more he wanted to save the story they told. Then he decided to turn part of this building into a museum where things could be displayed for others to see. It just grew and grew as other people got excited and brought more things in.”

Now, polished shelves display old medical equipment in the conference room where visiting dignitaries and members of the press are introduced to current events at the complex.

The long conference table in the center of the room was constructed from the floor of the hospital’s bowling alley. All around the room are photographs and descriptions of the grounds of the hospital as it was.

A dental chair donated by the Jennings County Historical Society sits in a corner.

In adjacent rooms, there is a weaving loom once used by patients as therapy. Nearby is an antique piano and a huge antique movie projector used in the hospital’s theater.

Bonnell said the piano is one of only five built at the Baldwin factory in the 1920s. It was donated to the hospital by a family.

“Workers excavating a building found the piano sitting by a broken window where rain was coming through. They saved it,” he said.

Many members of the military staff have contributed to the museum. As buildings are renovated, people find things from the days of the hospital and bring them in. Members of the complex’s carpentry shop use their own time to build display cases for the ever-increasing collection of artifacts.

“Now people in the community are also bringing things they saved,” Bonnell said, noting that residents understand that their items will be well cared for.

Bonnell hopes to use his talents to record stories of the people who once worked at the hospital.

“No one can tell the story of the hospital better than the people who worked here,” he said. “We want to get as many stories recorded as we can. If people will just come in and let us record their memories of how things were here, we will have the hospital’s story forever.”

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