Polk State School

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Polk State School
Established June 3, 1893
Construction Ended July 1896
Opened April 21, 1897
Current Status Active
Building Style Cottage Plan
Architect(s) Frederick J. Osterling
Location Polk, PA
Architecture Style Georgian Revival
Alternate Names
  • State Institution for Feeble-minded of Western Pennsylvania
  • Polk Center
  • Polk State Center


The State Institution for Feeble-minded of Western Pennsylvania was established by act of the State Legislature on June 3, 1893, which act authorized the Governor to appoint five commissioners to select a site and build an institution for the accommodation of the feeble-minded children of Western Pennsylvania.

Under the provision of this act the Governor appointed a commission consisting of the following: Norman Hall, Christopher Heydrick, George A. Jenks, W. Horace Rose and George W. Guthrie.

The site was to consist of a tract of land not less than 500 acres in extent, so located as to be most accessible by railway facilities to the counties of Western Pennsylvania; to be good, arable land, well adapted to the preservation of the health and the occupation and maintenance of the inmates, with an adequate supply of good water and natural facilities for drainage.

The buildings to be of the best design for the construction of such institution, without expensive architectural adornments or unduly large or costly administrative accommodations. The buildings to be in two groups, one for the educational and industrial departments and one for the custodial or asylum department, with such other sub-divisions as will best classify and separate the many diverse forms of the infirmity to be treated. All on such scale as to accommodate not less than 800 inmates, planned and located for easy and natural additions as population demands. The total cost of buildings and grounds not to exceed the sum of $500,000.

The commissioners selected a site of 850 acres at Polk, Venango County, Pa., on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, six miles west of the City of Franklin. The site, which consists of about 400 acres, is beautifully situated on a plateau 1116 feet above sea level, with good drainage and with an abundance of fine spring water. The commission selected F. J. Osterling, of Pittsburgh, as architect, and plans were prepared on a semi-cottage plan.

The group of buildings erected by the building commission consists of an administrative building, gymnasium, dining halls for boys and girls, power house, laundry, separate school buildings for boys and girls and a group of 16 cottages, each with a capacity of 40. On completion of the principal buildings in July, 1896, the institution was transferred from the building commission to a Board of Trustees. The trustees appointed J. M. Murdoch, M. D., formerly of Dixmont Hospital, superintendent in July, 1896, and proceeded at once with the equipment and furnishing of the buildings, which were ready for occupancy April 21, 1897. The first pupils admitted were 153 children transferred from the Pennsylvania Training School at Elwyn, Pa. At this time the institution had a capacity of 800. The institution has since been enlarged by the erection of separate custodial departments for boys and girls, a hospital building and industrial departments. There is now in course of erection a group of buildings to accommodate 330 feeble minded women. With the buildings in course of erection there will soon be accommodation for 2000 patients. Although the institution is particularly for the care and training of feeble-minded children, adults are admitted on pursuing the same course of legal commitment as governs admissions to the state hospitals for the insane. The total cost of the institution to date has been $1,499,161.08.

The activities of the institution are varied. There are 16 groups of boys and 15 groups of girls, and each graded according to their mental condition, and special attention is given to placing the child in the group best suited to its requirements. Each child is individually studied by a skilled physician as to his medical treatment, and mental, physical and moral training. Each child is also assigned to work in class rooms, shops and gymnasiums for the especial purpose of accomplishing what is best in the individual child.

The educational methods are those devised by Dr. Seguin, and consist of simple, impressive exercises rather than the development of abstract ideas. The child is encouraged to use his sense organs, to observe, to note color and form, to hear and note sound, to taste, to smell, to feel, to distinguish between rough and smooth, thick and thin, heat and cold. Especial attention is given to manual and industrial training, because of the conviction that much more will thus be accomplished than by the study of books; and that the future usefulness of the inmates will depend more upon manual dexterity than upon mental ability.

The boys are employed upon the farm and in gardening, clearing the rough land of stones and brush, raising the crops and caring for the live stock. Others are employed in different positions, such as the carpenter shop, tailor shop, shoe shop, mattress and broom shop, in the bakery, and in painting, making mats and hammocks, weaving carpets and rugs, knitting stockings and caps.

The institution is governed by a Board of nine Trustees appointed by the Governor. At present (1914) the Board of Trustees consists of: W. T. Bradberry, president; Marvin F. Scaif e, secretary; O. D. Bleakley, treasurer; S. H. Miller, George S. Criswell, Marshall Phipps, J. N. Davidson, F. H. Coursin, A. R. Smart.

Members of the Board of Trustees who have served prior to the present time: S. M. Jackson, A. E. Patton, John A. Wiley, J. J. Patton, E. W. Echols, Thomas B. Simpson and George F. Davenport.[1]

J. M. Murdoch, M. D., superintendent.


  • Dr. H. F. McDowell 1897-1901
  • Dr. E. W. Rhea 1907-1910
  • Dr. C . H. Henninger 1901-1905
  • Dr. J. I. Zerbe 1007-1910
  • Dr. B. E. Mossman, Jr.. 1901-1905
  • Dr. W. W. Mills 1905-1907
  • Dr. B. B. Black 1905
  • Dr. H. B. Gaynor 1910
  • Dr. J. E. Dwyer 1910

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