The Veterans Administration Medical Center was first established in 1903 as “The Mountain Branch of the National Home of Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” The concept of a “Home” or domiciliary for Union soldiers was conceived by President Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War, and the first such home was built in Togus, Maine in 1866.
Mountain Home was the ninth of only eleven such homes. It was established by an act of Congress on January 28, 1901 through the efforts of Congressman Walter P. Brownlow and others. It was built in the mountains of East Tennessee, where, at an altitude of 1700 feet, fresh breezes, pure water and an atmosphere healthful in nature would benefit its residents.
The Mountain Branch was built on its present site following acquisition of several tracts, totaling roughly 450 acres, from the families of C. J. Lyle, John F. Lyle, James Lyle, Robert F. Hale, J. H. Martin and W. P. Miller. The Congressional Act authorized $2.1 million for all construction. The National Homes in that era were designed primarily as domiciles rather than hospitals, with the Hospitals intended as “infirmaries” for the care of members of the home who became acutely ill. Very few veterans were admitted directly to the Hospital, since the modern concept of health care had not been developed. Mountain Home, typical of all such veterans homes during this period had a greenhouse, laundry, steam and electrical generating plant, various repair and maintenance shops, and a large farm to grow its own produce and raise livestock. The grounds also housed a fire department, stable, police force, a zoo, large theatre, a library (for which Andrew Carnegie donated $25,000), a bandstand (complete with band), a baseball field, a crude sewage disposal system, a hotel, two lakes, and a chapel housing both Protestant and Catholic services.
One of the more humorous and colorful tales (of which there are many) of Mountain Home relates to the painting of the house of John Smith, the first governor (director). As with all the painted buildings, this home was the basic, bland greyish-white. Apparently this did not set well with Governor Smith’s young bride. She wanted their house to be different from all the rest, and it definitely was! She had it painted barn red with green shutters. It is not known how long the house stayed decorated as such, but it has long since been returned to a more sedate color.
Veteran members furnished most of the labor for many activities, with the Home employing a staff of about 150. The cost of operating the Home in 1905 was $428.15 per veteran ($1.17 per man per day). A Beer Hall had operated in the Recreation Hut for a short time, but was closed August 10, 1906. Through the years, more services, such as utilities, food and fire protection, were purchased from the community. In addition, the Home veterans were required to work less. The Home had a domiciliary capacity of 2,250 and hospital capacity of 400.
The Home was organized in an essentially military nature, the veterans being organized into “companies,” with captains and sergeants. Even the full-time staff was semi-military in nature and title, with appropriate uniforms and insignia designating the officers in charge. This organization continued until the close of World War II; several traces remain in use today. The early regimen and regulations included such demands as “Bathing once a week is required by all members.” Enforcement of rules were dealt with by a court and jail system which was phased out around 1973. On July 21, 1930, an act of Congress and an executive order of the President consolidated all agencies administering benefits for Veterans into the Veterans Administration, and Mountain Home became a field station. As of that date the hospital capacity was 605 beds and domiciliary capacity was 2000 beds, with less than 200 full-time employees for both the hospital and domiciliary.
In 1934 Colonel Lee B. Harr was appointed as manager (later called center director) and served thirty-two years. Additional physicians were recruited and a survey of the physical plant was requested. An architect and a superintendent of construction were sent to Johnson City and they supervised the program of rebuilding, renovation and modernization. In many areas, wooden floors were replaced with terrazzo, toilet and bath facilities installed, new elevators added, heating systems updated, roads paved, wiring placed under-ground, kitchens modernized and ice boxes replaced by electrical refrigeration.
The Center Hospital operation gradually changed from predominantly long-term care to that of a smaller, more acute care hospital. A nursing home care unit of 58 beds was activated in 1965. Later, a new boiler plant was built, a large air conditioning project completed, and a clinical support building was constructed in the old courtyard area. In the mid-1970’s, the East Tennessee State University Quillen-Dishner College of Medicine was given a home on the grounds and became affiliated with the Veterans Administration. A new bed tower addition to the Hospital is nearing completion. The Center remains a major factor in the economy and health care of the area with a staff of 1217 employees, 1034 patient beds and an annual budget of over 45 million dollars. – contributed by Martha Trevethan, R.N. and Ken Harrison, MSW
References: Hiskey, George R. The Mountain Home Story, 1970; Williams, Samuel Cole, The History of Johnson City and Its Environs. Watauga Press, 1940; Report of the Board of Managers, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1905; Schuyler, Montgomery. Fortunate Treatment of a Group of Institutional Buildings, Architectural Records, Volume 30, August 1911; “Soldiers Home in Tennessee.” Craftsman, Volume 11, December 1906.