Moved by the Spirit(s)

~Saving a Relic on Hallowed Grounds~

By Ron Cook

Have you ever been drawn to something or someone, and not known why? Have you ever felt a presence or a calling, yet could not name what it was? Four years ago this month Kendra Van Cleef had that very wonderous feeling take root in a cause to save the Barn that stands so eloquently above the highway in Pineville overlooking Buhlow Lake. What or whom is it that has drawn her to create an entire movement to save this dilapidated structure? Why does this effort have solid grounds to stand as a most worthy cause? What is some of the amazing history of this building and its importance in the community as well as the state of Louisiana? I started digging into these questions, and have found some truly inspiring results.

Stepping into the “Wayback” machine, we set the dials for Pineville, Louisiana, 1902. During that year the Louisiana legislature determined and approved the construction of a new Insane Asylum to be built at a pleasant rural site. At that time in psychiatric history, compassionate treatment of the mentally ill had not advanced much past housing them for their own protection, as well the protection of the communities where they lived. Erratic behaviors, and mental instabilities were a threat to the patient, as well as the community. Little was known about possible cures or successful treatments, although many treatments were tried including: trephination (drilling a hole in the patient’s skull to relieve “psychic pressure”), bloodletting or purging (opening a vein and draining out some of the “bad” blood”), ice baths, restraints, semi-drowning, asphyxiation … you get the picture. These were all compassionate attempts to relieve the tortured existence of the mentally ill. We honestly graphically recount these techniques because the Pineville Dairy Barn project was a wonderful example of what can now be considered by John McDaniels, (retired director of outpatient services for the region), as “best practices.” John served thirty-four years in the mental health community as a social worker and administrator. His years witnessed the movement of services from many inpatient beds to outpatient community emphasis. For many years after the Dairy Barn was incorporated into the treatment plan, the Louisiana Psychiatric Hospital housed an average three thousand patients each year.

Thomas Davis, a member of the official “Save the Dairy Barn at Buhlow Lake Committee,”  as well as a former CEO of the Pineville Psychiatric hospital, reminded me that this institution was created as an “asylum,” which means a “safe-place.” Louisiana made a conscious decision to help protect the rights and safety of mentally ill patients, instead of merely locking them away from the communities.

The Dairy Barn was not a part of the original design for the hospital site. Housing and treatment buildings were the extent of the first plans. The original site was developed and built by a construction company headed by Joseph Carlin and his family. The facility opened for clients in 1906 and was quickly filled by new patients, as well as patients from other psychiatric hospitals. Mr. Carlin was admitted as a patient, himself, in 1909 staying for three years of treatment. He was diagnosed with depression possibly from the stress, or failure, of his construction business. Joseph then chose to stay on with his family as a resident worker after his initial commitment time. Joseph went on to design and build the Rose Cottage, as well as the Dairy Barn, with only the help of the patients. The Dairy Barn, and its wings, were built in 1923 from a kit sent to the site by Sears and Roebuck. The kit came with precut and numbered parts that Joseph and his patient-carpenters assembled. Joseph died the year the barn was built, having lived out his life at the hospital, working with clients, and doing all the maintenance. The Dairy Barn was a part of the work-therapy that seemed to be so successful, keeping the hospital virtually self-supporting for over thirty years. One record indicated that the hospital operated on a budget of $1.65 per patient, per day, during this time. This works out to $10.18 today. The average cost to maintain an inpatient client today in Louisiana is $1,715. This is phenomenal!

The hospital grounds include a patient cemetery where Joseph Carlin is buried in an unmarked grave. Patients were originally taken to the gravesite in a wheelbarrow, which was later replaced by a handmade wooden hearse, that was pushed by man-power. This hearse was used for the life of the graveyard use. There is a plan in place that will identify all the unmarked graves and list the buried on a wall being built at the cemetery entrance. At the cemetery, also, there is a sense of spiritual peace and gratefulness, which seems to permeate the entire hospital site.

In the 1950’s the government came into play, as pasteurization, and other regulations, restricted the ability of the dairy farm to operate as a self-supporting entity for the hospital. Some of the operations were moved to other sites. The tunnel, that helped the cows pass under the highway to the lush pasture land, was filled in when Buhlow Lake was created by a water-racing lobby in the state legislature. The Dairy Barn, and its wings, were converted into paint and carpentry shops on into the 1980’s. All operations, and uses of the barn, ceased around 1986. At that time, the Dairy Barn was recognized as a state historical site. The property has gone into disrepair and deterioration since then. What has not deteriorated has been the iconic stature of the Dairy Barn, as it hovers over the highway and lake as a monument to life-giving healing to so many from its past. Seeing it is like beholding a rocketship-like structure speaking volumes as grateful voices from across the decades join to sing its praise. People passing by have recognized this effect for many decades.

When I visited the site with committee members, Kendra Van Cleef, Nathan Martin, Mike Johnson, and Thomas Davis, their passion and commitment was effusive as they described repairs made in 1994, former features of the dairy operation, and possible plans for the future of the Barn. It was not clear to me, or these devoted committee members, exactly what would be the final nature of these possible outcomes. What was clear is that the “calling” to preserve this unique monument to mental health and historical importance has been heard abundantly, powerfully, and with great passion. Many community members in Pineville, as well as Alexandria, have given me their wonderful memories of this site as a landmark of inspiration, as well as a symbol of hope.

Please consider visiting the sites: and the Facebook site “Save the Dairy Barn at Buhlow Lake.” Visit the sites, learn about the history and uniqueness of this edifice, and get involved to donate and support this effort. We have the opportunity to preserve this barn for many reasons:

~Its wonderful mental health history,

~A monument to a healed life living out his time helping the hospital’s growth in Joseph Carlin,

~Its iconic siren call to gratefulness from the thousands of healed voices,and from the spirits of healed souls,

~Its unique Gothic barn design seldom found in the South,

~The tribute it represents as a towering example of American ingenuity that created barn kits that could be assembled by one carpenter helped by hospital patients,

Its 100 years as a beacon to local travelers that, “ all is well.”

Join the effort to preserve and develop this wonderful structure…

Let its peace continue to reign!


Ronald Cook

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