When we spoke to her in 2003, Laverne Throckhorn was a sweet, somewhat plaintive woman in her eighties living with her two brothers in a small bungalow in Portland. She was born in St. John, Oregon, in 1920, and had three brothers: Harry, Sydney, and Alvin. Her parents also had two babies who died at or shortly after birth. All of the children suffered some degree of developmental disability. Laverne’s family was poor, and her mother’s serious illness made their difficult lives worse yet. For reasons that are not clear, social services – or what passed for them in the 1920s – learned of the Throckhorns’ situation and attempted to take the children. The family moved several times, always staying just one step ahead of the state. In the small town of Hood River, however, the state caught up with them. Alvin, who had a serious speech impediment, was walking through the streets one day unaccompanied. Someone reported him to social services. The authorities picked Alvin up, made him show them where the family was living, and took the four children away.
Social services delivered them to the State Institution for the Feeble Minded, later renamed Fairview Hospital and Training Center in 1933. The institution had been opened in 1907, outside the state capital of Salem, to house the state’s “mentally defective.” There, as elsewhere, this label lumped together two categories of people: the cognitively impaired (or mentally handicapped) and the mentally ill (e.g., those suffering from severe depression). This institution looked like most institutions that existed before the Second World War. It was attractive, grand even, and set on well-landscaped grounds; in the 1920s, it was approached via a winding road known locally as “Lunatics’ Lane.” In its day, Fairview resembled a feudal estate: the director lived in a grand house on the site, and all permanent staff was housed in detached buildings surrounding the large, columned main structure. Also housed in the peripheral buildings were the estate’s workers – but in place of serfs, it was patients who were set to work at planting vegetables, milking cows, gathering eggs, and raising other animals. Such farms were common. As early as 1910, most such institutions had farm colonies adjacent to or near the main facility, and many institutions bought or rented additional farms.