“Each Individual Takes an Active Part:” Polk Center’s Closure Doesn’t Erase its Rich History

Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced that Polk Center will be closed in the coming years. Polk (Venango County) has been a home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1897. It has a fascinating history both as an institution, and in the unique stories of every person who lived and worked at the western Pennsylvania institution.

You can find many of those stories at the Pennsylvania State Archives, home to many of Polk’s historic records and photographs. After Polk closes, the remainder of its historic record will also be moved to the archives where they will be available for historical and genealogical research. To learn more check out the archives’ finding aid for Polk Center or contact the archives reference department.

In a recent article about Polk’s closure in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a quote from historian Dr. Dennis Downey struck me:

“As we move or transition folks to the community, we’ve got to know this history…otherwise we are setting ourselves up for new problems.”

Understanding how Polk came to be, the experiences of its residents and staff, and how the institution’s operations changed over the years is important. Without Polk’s history, its people disappear. Preserving the records in the archives is a start, but we’ve got to have people come in and look at them too.

Go to the PA State Archives and get your hands on the Polk Center records. Its a rich collection and there is something for anyone, whether you had a family member living there in the past, you’re interested in the history of disability, or you’d like to know more about the realities of institutionalization. There’s no limit to what we can learn from these records.

One of the most interesting records that’s survived from Polk’s early years is a collection of  around 700 glass plate negatives of buildings, residents, and activities from the early 20th century. Its an amazing collection of images that I really enjoy looking through, I’m really glad they survived all these decades.

The entire collection has been digitized and can be seen on the Pennsylvania Power Library website. Below you’ll find a few of my most favorite ones below, along with some excerpts from the 1923-1924 Polk State School Biennial Report, written by Superintendent J.M. Murdoch (a residential hall at Polk is named after him today). Keep in mind that there this uses outdated and offensive wording. I think its important to remember the attitudes that staff at institutions like Polk had towards their charges, as that informed the treatment and conditions residents experienced there.


Report of the Superintendent:

The mental age the great majority of the children admitted are of the lower grades of mental defect. This has come about largely through the greater difficulty of caring for the more defective ones at home, making the admission of these cases most imperative. This is unfortunate as it postpones indefinitely the admission of the children who could be most benefited.


After a period of training and treatment we have returned to the family or found suitable homes for all pupils where there is a reasonable prospect that they will get along satisfactorily outside of the institution. Many of these former pupils keep in touch with us by letters and visits; expressing appreciation and gratitude for the training and treatment received. Many have proved to be honest, reliable and industrious and are respected in the communities in which they live.


The majority of mental defectives, if properly understood and treated are good, affectionate, desire to help others and are honest, reliably and well behaved. We have in the past over stressed mere intelligence; other mental characteristics are of as great, if not greater importance. Success in life depends quite as much on personality and emotional reaction as upon intelligence. We have not sufficiently appreciated good behavior in those lacking in intelligence. After all it is not so much a question of how much a boy or girl knows as it is how he or she behaves.


There is a class of defectives in which the defect is not so much a lowered intelligence as it is faulty character traits. These children, as a rule, do fairly well in response to the usual intelligence tests and are frequently quite clever and capable under direction and appropriate supervision. However, the teacher has difficulty in holding their attention, they are erratic, abusive of more defective children, untruthful and selfish, appropriate the belongings of others, do not respect property rights, are wasteful and wantonly destructive. They are precocious sexually, showing abnormal sexual development and perversions which they lame little or no effort to control. They are either indifferent to the opinion of others or show much ingenuity in the fabrication of fanciful tales to hide their wrong doings. They show little or no fear of punishment.


These children cannot be permitted to remain at large as they are a menace to innocent people and destructive to property. From this type of children, the army of adult criminals receives many if not most of its recruits. They do not so much lack intelligence as emotional control..


The children who come to us present many varied problems. The nature and cause of defect must be diligently sought out; the degree of retardation established and the proper remedial agencies and appropriate methods of training applied to each individual. No two children are alike.


The problem is primarily a medical one, calling upon all the resources of medical science. Aside from the medical treatment and scholastic training, we endeavor to make each and everyone as comfortable and happy as is possible with the means at our disposal.


An institution such as ours caring for over 2000 persons, and with over 300 officers, physicians, teachers, nurses and employees, is comparable to a fairly large sized town. We have all the needs of such a community; school, church, store, shops, industries, hospital, place for amusement, recreation grounds, power house, laundry, water works, sewage disposal plant, farm dairy and garden. All activities must be co-ordinated and work in harmony. We are a town of live interests in which each individual takes an active part, according to his or her ability. There is an abundance of opportunity for work and play for all.


We have endeavored to main cordial relations with our neighbors and assist parents, guardians and teachers in near by communities in the management of defective children in the home and school, where admission to the institution is not necessary or possible at the time.


We have pruned, and cit, and saved and have reached a limit where saving means sacrifice, but the sacrifice has been made. Notwithstanding the appeals for admission we ave been unable to further increase our facilities which are already taxed far beyond their normal capacity.


Although we require a large staff of trained people; doctors, nurses and teachers, for the treatment and training of the manifold forms of mental defect found in our inmates, requiring both hospital and school, the institution has been maintained, including upkeep of property, operation of hospital and school, the furnishing of food and clothing and the payment of salaries and wages of all officers and employees at a per capita cost of $4.92.


Services rendered by the boys and girls have materially aided in keeping down the costs of operation. These services cheerfully rendered, carefully recorded and conservatively estimated, represent an annual saving of over $100,000 in the maintenance of the institution.
For the comfort and welfare of all who live within the institution we cannot be too considerate.

I’d really like to find some memoirs or personal accounts from the people who lived at Polk to provide another perspective on the institution too. I hope the words and voices of these individuals are preserved somewhere. If you know of any from any time in Polk’s history leave a comment!


2 thoughts on ““Each Individual Takes an Active Part:” Polk Center’s Closure Doesn’t Erase its Rich History

Add yours

  1. My sister lived in polk center they did wonders with her our family didn’t no how to care for her back in the early 60 they taught her to walk eat dress self and she was a helper and she was proud of it she was always home for the holiday but she was always ready to go back to polk because that was here home.she passed away a few years ago miss you my sister


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