Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Old Madison County Home, Craig Colony for Epileptics, and Eaton History.

The Home as it was called before it burned in 1912
and was repave by the brick structure!
The weather has been really nasty this week and sitting inside I got to thinking on a number of informational articles I had that I could put out for the public to enjoy.  As the Madison County Historian I enjoyed delving into and writing the history of the county, if that history included information on the Town of Eaton I was enthralled. So I include this for those who always ask about the Old Home and Madison County’s care of the ill or less privileged....
Thanks to the Madison County Archives Project many new and interesting tidbits of information have surfaced. It is so strange how one piece of paper can start a ball rolling that suddenly garners information that most people have no idea about. One such tidbit is a paper we found on the Craig Colony for Epileptics.
The Atlantic Monthly “Review touted the new Craig’s Colony set up by New York State, as “A New York Colony of Mercy”. The Colony was set in Sonyea, New York, which was named by Native Americans, translated meaning “The open spot where the sun shines in.” The area, originally settled by Shakers and sold to New York State to be “only used for charitable purposes,” became Craig’s Colony for Epileptics.
The original plan was to make the colony as self-sufficient as possible and a steadfast rule was that it was to serve the “indigent,” not private pay patients, and that it would not handle those people that had become “insane.” The people set to the facility were from New York’s county poor houses and almshouses, including our Madison County epileptics. Each had to work at some form of constructive labor to benefit the colony.
One of the first obstacles was the realization that these epileptics were totally uneducated, as epileptics at the time were considered insane or evil and many never attended schools, but were locked up in asylums or almshouses. Even though their seizures lasted a few minutes and then the person returned back to normal, these people never were treated as a normal person.
So, immediately the colony set up a school for the young children that were brought in. The adults also had to be schooled in service jobs such as basket weaving, brick making, straw mat weaving, upholstering, woodworking, printing, blacksmithing; useful trades that would not only serve the “Colony,” but also be in part saleable to raise money. The women were mostly engaged in indoor activities and in working the gardens. The “Colony” cultivated and worked a farm of over 2,000 acres.
In the Atlantic Review article it states that in its first year Craig’s Colony worked at a level of 50 percent self-sufficiency. The other funding came from the State of New York, which provided $250 a year per person for the colony, with the county such as Madison, providing $30.
Another facet of the “Colony” was its designation as a place to study epilepsy noted in its charter was a provision to “establish a department for scientific research.” The system managed to gather much needed information on the disorder, it managed to train nurses and the laboratory it set up had a complete and unique system of keeping records, records that were put into studies and eventually, medical journals.
The Atlantic article by Sydney Brooks states that “The Craig’s Colony is many things in one. It is a farm, a school, a laboratory, a workshop, a hospital and an asylum; but above everything else it is a home.”
Information on New York State’s Craig’s Colony has surfaced in our march through older documents and the research into this institution is an interesting backwards glance into the welfare system of New York State during the late 1880’s and 1900’s. At
that time in history epileptic people who needed help were taken care of by the County Supervisors who were charged with setting up “Poor Houses” that not only acted as hospitals in the rural areas and functioned as nursing homes for the elderly or needy, but also housed epileptic people who in that period of time were looked on with fear.
In the year 1874 the New York State Commissioner in Lunacy in a report cited over 436 epileptics in the state who were so bad that they had to be housed or confined in county poor houses or in some cases in jail. The person cited to investigate the situation was William Letchworth.
After touring Europe to see other methods of care for epileptics Letchworth wrote numerous pamphlets on the appalling conditions in New York State. In his efforts to reform the system Dr. Frederick Peterson, a doctor in the Harlem Valley State Hospital for the Insane, joined him. Peterson, after touring a facility in Germany, asked for a similar colony to be built in New York, and both men convince the Legislature in 1892 to undertake to build such a facility. Letchworth and the head of the state Board of Charities, Oscar Craig set about looking for a suitable location.
The site chosen was the former Sonyea Shaker Colony established in 1836. The Shaker Colony late faded as a result of fires, floods and poor management. The State of New York eventually offered $115,000. For the land, making promises to the Shaker Community to use it only for charitable purposes.

And so it is on January 20, 1896, that Madison County and New York’s other counties, received formal notification, which the first named patients from the county’s list could be sent to the new Craig Colony.
A trip to Letchworth Park and William Letchworth's Museum


  1. Where exactly was this home located?Is this the building that was a nursing home just outside of eaton? Gerrit Smith home?

  2. Very impressive. Love the Corinthian columns.