Muscatatuck Oral History - Belma Elberts Interview
"Even before we started to school we used to go to Muscatatuck. My daddy played baseball... we’d have a picnic after the ball game and they played ball to entertain the patients out there." Belma Eberts' memories of Muscatatuck start in the 1920s when was she was four or five years old. Her father was a "railroader." For most of her life she lived in nearby North Vernon, becoming a homemaker and raising a family there. Her memories include stories about the institution as told to her by her brother, who became an administrator.
Belma recalls the era when residents were expected to perform work tasks assigned to them, for little or no pay. "I hired two girls from out there. One came to iron and she did all of my ironing the day that she was there, and then the other one came and cleaned my house." Its own farming, dairy operations and cattle raising supplied the institution with all it required. "There was a house and some ladies in that, and they had chickens and they were so happy taking care of their chickens and gathering the eggs and things like that. They milked cows and they had vegetable gardens and the whole place was pretty well self-sufficient."
Belma discusses the changing administrations at Muscatatuck over the decades, including the era when peonage was prohibited and farming operations ended. "That just broke those old ladies hearts. They were just sick because they had to give up their chickens." Earlier in the 1950s, Albert Sasser was superintendent for a few years he shook things up. "I don’t think Al was too well liked around town because he had, well too modern an idea and they wanted it to run as an old fashioned place." With her brother's inside information, her view was that the retaliatory grand jury investigation of one of Sasser's employees was unjust. Her brother had told her that the staff person "was one of the best guys that ever was, but they crucified him." "Back at that time they didn’t think a whole lot about gay people but they thought he was different."
North Vernon's economy was very dependent upon Muscatatuck. "They put bread and butter on people’s tables." Even the town's water supply came from a reservoir on the grounds. She relates that her father-in-law was instrumental in the creation of the reservoir, and remembers the water shortages that preceded it. For North Vernon, the announcement of the closure was a shock. "People just took it for granted. Muscatatuck was there and it was going to be there forever and those kids were going to be taken care of forever but all of a sudden they aren’t."
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