Willowbrook Manor

High tea and history


What: Tea and Tour

Where: Begins at Willowbrook Manor, Sedro-Woolley



Cost: $95; includes high tea and a boxed lunch


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

If you love history, get on I-5 and take the Sedro-Woolley exit. Your destination is the Northern State Hospital campus, a massive expanse of land that comprises woodlands, green lawns, hospital buildings and an old farm site, and is gradually being colonized to accommodate new businesses and offices. At the same time it remains home to a number of derelict Spanish Colonial buildings, ruins and a treasure chest of a rich, almost-forgotten past.

From 1910 to 1972, when budget cuts forced its closure, the Northern State Hospital was a psychiatric institution for more than 2,000 patients who were considered mentally incompetent. At the time folks could be sent to NSH for anything from depression to menopausal symptoms and everything in between.

But this was no ordinary mental asylum. There were no locked doors and patients were free to roam the property. NSH patients had none of the social stigma that pervades those with mental health issues today. Sometimes they would roam onto neighboring land and take a snooze in a farmer’s barn.

The hospital administrators at NSH believed patients who worked not only contributed to their environment, but also received important occupational training, self-esteem and a sense of purpose that could herald their complete recovery. So patients were put to work—some on the NSH farm, which produced voluminous quantities of vegetables and berries, others in the sewing room, cleaning the buildings, cooking food or clearing trees. These were smart, capable individuals who relished the opportunity to contribute, and work gave their lives focus, purpose and dignity.

While a few of the buildings have been destroyed, most are still standing—proud examples of majestic Spanish colonial architecture. We biked the circumference of the property with Elsa Miller, a local history buff who has researched the NSH era extensively and is thrilled to share the anecdotes she’s gleaned.

She pointed to one building that looked like a Spanish castle. “This is Travenin, built in 1938 as student nurses’ quarters. Those nurses had to follow strict rules,” she explained. “No married women were allowed, there was no cooking permitted in the rooms and 10:30pm was lights out. It was no surprise they created ingenious escape routes to socialize in town after dark.”

Terri Gifford, owner of Willowbrook Manor, is the force behind these outings. She negotiated with the city and the Port of Skagit to obtain permission to traverse this historic site. She invested in bicycles at Willowbrook and it’s her “Tea and Tour” excursion that makes all this possible.

Gifford believes NSH has an important lesson for visitors, and it’s why she organizes the tours and recruits bright, young historians like Miller to explain the relevance of the site. “There was reverence and appreciation for the humanity of these people at NSH,” she reflected. “The hospital did a lot of good for patients who needed good done to them.”

We biked silently past the medical building where procedures that are considered to be illegal today took place frequently in years past, when medical standards were…different. Depression was treated with electro-convulsive therapy, while patients whose minds were considered overactive were given insulin therapy, which put them in a forced coma to “give their minds a rest,” Miller explained. Lobotomies performed on others left them unable to perform even the most basic functions.

Still, on the whole, the Northern State Hospital was a remarkable institution that offered outings for its patients and created a healthy environment in which many of them flourished, and mortality rates were considerably lower than in other psychiatric institutions. In that sense it was far ahead of its time.

Our time at the NSH was enlightening and fascinating and Miller’s stories were rich with detail of those who lived here—the administrators, doctors, nurses and patients. Gifford packs her guests a boxed picnic lunch of salads and croissants, enjoyed on the banks of a creek near the old farm and canning building, before she bikes them back to the manor along the Cascade Trail, a bucolic, flat route that runs parallel to Highway 20.

Gifford’s “Tea and Tour” begins with a British-style high tea with fresh scones on her gorgeous nine-acre property, where she grows ingredients for her teas and a garden that overflows with beauty. She also offers “Saturday Morning Tea and Scones,” “Harvest Tea,” “Weeding and Tea,” and other bike tours leaving from Willowbrook Manor.

“I feel tea is a gentle thing, as is a garden,” she said with a smile. “We can all use a bit of ‘gentle’ in this world we live in.”

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