Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium Museum Opens Saturday During Centennial Event

Jill M. Rohrbach

One hundred years ago, the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium located on a hillside in Booneville admitted its first patient. An event to mark the centennial and the opening of a new museum will take place this Saturday, Sept. 18 on the former sanatorium grounds.

Activities begin at 11:30 a.m., and include guided walking and driving tours of the complex, which is now considered a historic site. Lunch will be provided by the local Elks Club, followed by speakers, including Developmental Disabilities Services Director Dr. Charlie Green, and Booneville Mayor Jerry Wilkins. The new Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium Museum, which contains historical documents and some displays of medical devices, will be open to the public after an afternoon ribbon cutting. There will be several showings of the documentary “Sanatorium Hill” in the old auditorium throughout the day.

Today the complex operates as the Booneville Human Development Center, serving as a residential care facility for about 154 mentally disabled persons. On Saturday, rugs made by current residents will be for sale, along with sanatorium souvenirs such as t-shirts, coffee cups, and mouse-pads.

Tuberculosis became widespread among the general public of the United States by the early 1900s. The disease, which caused scarring of the lungs, was highly contagious with a high mortality rate. It was spread by the fluids of the respiratory tracts of infected persons.

With only modest facilities when it opened in 1910, the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium became a sprawling campus consisting of numerous buildings on 1,000 acres of land. It was one of the largest TB centers in the world.

“About 70,000 [patients] total went through here,” said James Harbison, director of staff development at the center. “Upwards of 50,000 of them died here.”

It’s most impressive building was, and is today, the Nyberg building standing five stores high and 528 feet long. It had a bed capacity of just over 500. In addition to patients, it contained doctor’s offices, laboratories, examination and treatment rooms, an employees’ cafeteria and kitchen, and the morgue.

Completed in 1941, the building is named for Leo Nyberg, who was a state senator and one of the main facilitators of the Nichols-Nyberg Act that the legislature passed in 1938 to fund construction of the new hospital facility. “And he suffered from TB as a matter of fact and actually succumbed to the disease and died before the building was put into use,” said Harbison.

The 1948 Masonic Building housed all of the children, those suffering from tuberculosis and well children whose ill parents were at the sanatorium. This building is now one of the prevocational areas with a dyeing station and looms for making rugs.

The facility in its entirety was self-contained in that it had its own water and sewer system, and fire department. It also had a farm, complete with dairy and swine operations, and a cannery for all of the vegetables and fruits grown there. “They said at one time all they needed to send out for up here was salt and matches,” Harbison added. In the plant management building the main boiler once supplied power and heat through steam tunnels located throughout the hillside. The chapel is still in use today as a non-denominational church.

“At one time the tuberculosis sanatorium had more folks in it than the town of Booneville,” added Harbison. Sanatorium staff also resided on the hill. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Before the sanatorium, the mortality rate of the disease was eighty percent. The sanatorium helped to reduce that rate to ten percent.”

Tuberculosis declined after medicines to treat the disease were developed in the 1950s. The sanatorium discharged its last patients in 1973.

A small portion of the first floor of the Nyberg is currently used. The rest of the building is in eerie disrepair after removal of asbestos several years ago. Harbison said it is cost prohibitive to renovate the interior at this time.

The facility is located at 87 Reed Road. For more information, call 479-675-2666.

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