Veterans' Administration Medical Center

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Birds-eye view of the VA Medical Center showing Steele Circle, the bandstand, and other buildings. ca. 1930.
The Marion Veteran’s Administration Medical Center is a national historic site. The Veteran’s Center has gone through many changes in its hundred-year history, and is significantly different in its current form than when it was originally created. Beginning as a National Asylum, the VAMC is now much more than that, offering psychiatric and rehabilitative care as well. Started under the watchful eyes of Colonel George W. Steele, the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center has flourished under past and current directors, and has become a major part of the Marion community.

Federal Charter

President Grover Cleveland first approved the Marion Home on July 23, 1888, twenty-three years after Congress passed legislation to incorporate a National Asylum for disabled soldiers and sailors of the Civil War (“Historical Facts” 1). The Marion Home was the sixth branch then established in the country (“Historical Facts” 1). A bill to establish a branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Grant County, Indiana, was introduced in the fifty-first Congress by Hon. George W. Steele, representing the Eleventh Congressional District of Indiana (Department of Veterans Affairs 7). The passage of the bill began as follows: “An Act to authorize the Location of a Branch Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, in Grant County, Indiana, and for other purposes…" (Department of Veterans Affairs 7). The sum of two hundred thousand dollars was appropriated to purchase the land and construct the original buildings (“Historical Facts” 1). The only requirements given were that 200 acres of land should be the minimum purchased, and a natural gas well be drilled to provide heat and light (Nordstrom, C.L. 1). The two hundred thousand dollar purchase is now valued at sixty million dollars, and consists of approximately ninety-nine buildings, eighteen of which house close to 850 patients (“Historical Facts” 1).

Preparations

On March 2, 1889, an announcement was made that the L. Geiger and Isaac Elliott land tracts, located two and one-half miles southeast of the city, had been chosen as a site for the new home. The government purchased 235.83 acres at a cost of twenty-six thousand four hundred thirty-five dollars and thirty cents, with an annual appropriation of three hundred dollars for leasing other land in order to perpetuate the gas supply. Eventually, this acreage was increased to 300 acres in order to provide farming operations. Farming interest later diminished among patients, however, and on September 17, 1957, two parcels of farmland were sold at public auction. A brick works was located on an adjacent farm, which was later purchased as land holdings expanded, and reportedly supplied the brick for the original structures (Nordstrom, C.L. 1).

Construction and Opening

Construction at the National Home for the Disabled American Veterans, 1893.
A topographical map of the site made May 7, 1889, showed the locations of the proposed “Barracks” sufficient to house 2,500 veterans when completed (Nordstrom, C.L. 1). Work on the barracks was rushed and the first building, a temporary one, was completed, and 35 disabled veterans were brought here to occupy it on November 23, 1889, (Nordstrom, C.L. 1). Original plans called for the construction of sixteen barracks, each two hundred feet by sixty feet, a chapel which accommodated both Catholic and Protestant faiths, theater, memorial hall, administrative quarters, hospital and gymnasium (Nordstrom, C.L. 1).

Buildings one, two, three, four, five and six were built in 1889 (Nordstrom, C .L. 1). The National Cemetery, located on the east side of the Medical Center grounds, was purchased in 1889 (“Historical Facts” 1). A fifteen-foot monument depicting three Civil War Soldiers, dedicated to the Home by an act of Congress in 1888, stands in the Cemetery to commemorate the men who offered their lives in defense of their country (“Historical Facts” 1).

Old entrance to the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers, ca. 1910.
On March 17, 1890, the National Home was formally opened and buildings nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, fifty, sixty, and the Mess Hall were completed by the end of 1890 (Nordstrom, C.L. 1). The theater and greenhouse were erected in 1891, as well as the first housekeeping quarters (Nordstrom, CL. 1). By 1898 the Chapel and the Director’s Quarters and Buildings ten, eleven, twelve, fourteen and eighteen were completed (Nordstrom, C.L. 1).

Description

Nurses and patients inside the hospital at the Soldiers Home, July 11, 1907
The original National Home was comprised of 300 acres of land, seventy buildings, one thousand four hundred beds used entirely for treatment of neuropsychiatric patients, complete surgical setup and laboratory facilities, x-ray, minor surgical departments, dental clinic, medical clinics, electro-therapy and hydro-therapy departments, with a staff consisting of fifteen doctors, forty-nine nurses, two hundred sixteen ward attendants, sixty-five mess attendants, and twelve special technicians (Nordstrom, C.L. 2).
Mess hall at the Soldiers' Home. Waiters, in white, are lined up along side of room, tables are set and prepared for a meal, flags and red & white bunting decorate the room. ca. 1910.
It was said of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at that time:
The Marion Branch is a beautiful, rolling, tract of ground, located about two and a half miles southeast of the City of Marion. It has a frontage on the west, of one half mile on the Jonesboro Road, a much frequented thoroughfare, running from Marion to Jonesboro. A frontage on the north of half a mile on College Avenue: and it is bordered on the east and south by the Mississinewa River, a beautiful, winding stream, edged on either side by trees of magnificent foliage, and noted throughout the State for its splendid scenery. The home grounds contain two hundred and thirty-five acres; forest trees cover fifty-nine. The sewerage system is almost perfect, as the grounds have a natural drainage to the river. Broad and well-kept avenues and roads abound throughout the Home, the most noticeable of which is Black Road, a shady drive extending through the forest. In the woods are, scattered here and there, hundreds of rustic chairs and settees, where no doubt the veterans have fought, over and over again, the battles of ‘61 and ‘65. Cement walks traverse the grounds, from one building to another, and around many buildings. Outside of the wooded portion, hundreds of young maple, linden, elm and cedar trees have been set out. Beds of various kinds of beautiful flowers, which are kept in perfect order during the summer, are to be found about the buildings.(Department of Veterans Affairs).
President Taft visits the Soldiers' Home on July 2, 1911.
The immediate priority of the Home was to provide shelter and training for the “old soldier”. Admission to the Home was limited to volunteers disabled as a result of the Civil War. By 1884, a disabled veteran need no longer prove that his disability was not incurred in service against the United States. By 1900, admission was extended to all honorably discharged officers, soldiers, and sailors who served in regular or volunteer forces of the United States in any war in which the country had engaged, and who were disabled, had no adequate means of support, and were incapable of earning a living (“Historical Facts” 1).

Through the Years

The institution was originally known as the Marion Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Because of the urgent need for additional facilities for the mentally afflicted due to World War I, it became a neuropsychiatric hospital in 1921 and was known as the Marion National Sanitorium. In July 1930, as the result of the consolidation of various Federal Bureaus handling veterans’ affairs, the Veterans Administration was established. Since this agency was responsible for the administration of veterans’ hospitals, the official designation of the hospital was then changed to Veterans Administration Hospital. The hospital grounds at this time comprised an area of approximately 210 acres, containing 120 buildings. The buildings included 21 for housing patients with a bed capacity of one thousand six hundred fifty (Nordstrom, C.L. 2).

Palm Sunday Tornadoes

On Palm Sunday, 1965, a tornado struck the hospital at approximately eight o’ clock P.M., coming from the south/southwest. Building twenty-three, four small brick buildings, and four temporary buildings were completely destroyed. Buildings three, six, eleven and fifty sustained minor damage, and Buildings fifty-one, fifty-three, fifty-five and seventy-six sustained major damage. The vertical water standpipe (Tower) was damaged and seven hundred large trees throughout the hospital grounds were completely destroyed, along with three employee quarters buildings (Nordstrom, C.L. 3).

The VA Today

Modern buildings at the VA Hospital, ca. 1968
The Medical Library is located in building thirteen, which serves as the hospital’s learning resource center. The Medical Library is the focal point of the hospital’s continuing medical/administrative education effort. The hospital also participates in a nurse-training program given by three area colleges. The classroom facilities and patients are provided by the hospital with the colleges supplying the teachers and educational materials (Nordstrom, C.L. 3).

Presently, on approximately 151 acres of landscaped grounds, patient units and support operations are provided in a campus setting, consisting of ninety-nine buildings (Department of Veteran’s Affairs 9). Structures include such facilities as the laundry, greenhouse, boiler plant, rehabilitation medicine activities, dining rooms, chapel, theater, library, canteen and residences (Nordstrom, C.L. 3).

The Marion Administration Medical Center delivers health services viewed as a continuum consisting of maintenance of health, prevention and diagnosis of disease, treatment and rehabilitation. The staff at the hospital, volunteers from many state service organizations in Marion and surrounding communities provide assistance in numerous and various ways. The volunteer organization provides more than one thousand three hundred scheduled activities, with twenty-two thousand members participating throughout the year (Nordstrom, C.L. 3).

Conclusion

The Veteran’s Administration Medical Center is a truly historic site, having been a large part of Marion’s cultural and historical background for over a century. Despite many changes in leadership and specific mission statement, the VAMC has prospered greatly, helping numerous veterans every year. The VAMC has grown from first being a home for traumatized Civil War veterans after that tragic era, to a National Sanitarium after the neuropsychosis experienced during the trench warfare of World War I were first realized. After this, the VAMC became a Veteran’s home, which acted as a beneficiary to those who had given their lives in defense of their country. As the VAMC heads into the coming century, it is poised to continue its mission of aiding America’s defenders in their need.

Works Cited

  • “A Century of Caring”. Department of Veterans Affairs. Packet. 1989
  • “Historical Facts”. Department of Veterans Affairs. Packet. 1989
  • “Historical Notes”. Veterans Administration Medical Center. 1982
  • Nordstrom, C.L., director. Letter. Veterans Administration Hospital. 1976

Credits

This article was written by Sean Bennett and was submitted on January 16, 2001 for Mr. Munn's AP US History class at Marion High School.