SELAH — Founded by a pair of alcoholics, Sundown M Ranch north of town has been helping chronic alcoholics and other drug users free themselves from the tormenting grip of addiction for nearly a half century.

In 1968, James W. Oldham teamed with fellow recovering alcoholic Merrill Scott to form the state’s first nonmedical residential substance abuse treatment center. Nonmedical treatment or assisted living centers are not required to have certified nurses or doctors on staff.

This past Monday, the privately run treatment center that sprawls across 35 acres in the Yakima River Canyon marked 45 years of operation — the state’s oldest nonmedical residential substance abuse center.

Oldham met Scott in Alcoholics Anonymous in Yakima, and a friendship was struck, according to a Sundown history book. Their vision to help other alcoholics recover is analogous to the AA program’s inception, which was founded in 1935 by two recovering alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Holbrook Smith, in Akron, Ohio.

Sundown has treated more than 116,000 people and sees roughly 2,500 people a year, Executive Director Scott Munson said in an interview Thursday at the facility.

“To me, the main success behind Sundown is that it was founded by people in recovery who wanted to help others get into recovery,” he said. “And I don’t think we lost that mission.”

Not long after Oldham got sober in the mid-1960s, he was hired by the state Department of Health to open a referral center for alcoholics to detox and be directed to available services. He first opened the Yakima Valley Council on Alcoholism before extending his efforts across the state.

“He was opening them across the state,” said Munson, who has been with Sundown for 28 years. “It was really the beginnings of what we have today in terms of treatment facilities.”

After sending two men to Hazelden, a nationally renowned treatment center in Center City, Minn., he decided that such a facility was need here, Munson said.

So, he asked Scott for help.

And on March 4, 1968, they opened Sundown in an abandoned Christian Indian Mission in White Swan, deep within the Yakama reservation. They leased the old two-story brick structure from Homeland Ministries for $1 a year and started operations with 25 beds, according to the history book.

Because the closest hotel was 26 miles to the west in Toppenish, a program was immediately started to give family members of those being treated a place to stay. The center allows family members to stay for the first three days of treatment to help with the patient’s transition, which is fairly uncommon, Munson said.

Three years later, the treatment center ran into financial trouble, and Scott left his position with the corporate office of Bon Marché in Seattle and headed to White Swan.

“He moved to a little broke-down house where you had to stoke the (fire) with coal,” Munson said. “It was a life-changing decision he and his wife, Mary, had to make.”

A year later, Oldham died.

“He never got to see what his vision turned into,” Munson said.

Growth spawns change

At the White Swan site, Sundown saw patient numbers grow. Beds increased to nearly 50. In 1985, the center moved to its current location just north of Selah, where it now boasts 160 beds, separate dorms for men and women, a wing devoted to youth, and a gym. Adults stay for a 21-day program that costs $6,090, while youth stay in a 28-day program for $9,100. Munson said the cost is on average half or even a third of that of most privately run treatment centers.

Patients attend counseling and other classes about alcohol and drug abuse prevention, and can use the gym to exercise. Youths attend substance abuse classes in addition to school, which includes a PE class.

Since moving to Selah, the center has added several programs focusing on elderly people in recovery, helping women dealing with postpartum depression coupled with addiction and relapse prevention.

And a year after moving to Selah, Pierre Brown took over center operations from Merrill Scott and began to move into the national market, accepting patients from all across the country, Munson said.

“He really established us as a nationally recognized facility,” he said.

Looking out the administration building’s window, Clinical Director Chuck Buttery said despite all the changes, one value has remained constant.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the tremendous care for the chemically dependent who is still suffering,” he said.

New challenges

Because of an absence of any treatment programs for youth, the center in 1993 launched its own. With it came new challenges, said Sundown Medical Director Dr. Fred Montgomery.

“Programs for the youth didn’t exist,” he said. “So there was the huge problem and nothing was being done about it.”

Then, the youth program mostly treated those using marijuana, but now it’s heroin, he said.

In 2011, only 11 percent of patients overall at Sundown said heroin was their primary drug, but last year the number rose to 40 percent. And heroin is the primary drug for a majority of youths now coming through.

“Now heroin is the gorilla in town in opiate use,” Montgomery said. “Heroin use among kids, that would have been unheard of 10 to 15 years ago. It has become a significant problem.”

It’s a problem that brings heart-wrenching cases. Currently, a 16-year-old boy in treatment is afraid to go home because his parents use heroin.

“He says, ‘I’m going to have to go into a foster home or something,’” Montgomery said. “He will not go home. He will go to some other place.”

The center follows youths for a few years after they leave, and works with local social services to place them into safe homes if needed.

There are many success stories as well, Munson noted. His facility often sees people rebuild their lives, families reunite and youths resume their education and advance to college.

And that success can be measured by who is referring patients.

“Still, most of our people come here because of alumni,” he said. “More than half of them are referred by people who were here.”

Looking back on Sundown’s inception, Munson said success here is built on one recovering alcoholic helping another.

“What it brings to the work is passion for the work,” he said. “It isn’t just a job. For many of us here, it’s really a mission and not a job.”

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or