Thursday, April 9, 2009

Serving the Nameless Dead in Sedro Woolley

Sedro Woolley, the town in Northwest Washington State where I live, was the home of Northern State Hospital for the Insane from 1910 to 1976. Covering approximately 1200 acres, it was a self-sufficient little farm colony with about 400 acres of garden space, an equal amount of pasture, a dairy, herds of pigs and cows, flocks of chickens, and processing plants for all that food, including a cannery. Inmates worked on the farm and in all the ancillary activities that had to do with a small, self-contained village. There was even a crematorium, for most people who came stayed the rest of their lives.

Built in a style called Spanish Revival, the campus was beautiful, with about 40 acres of landscaped, formal gardens. There are several web sites that have photo montages of the campus as it was, and other sites have pictures of the buildings as they are now.

Some of the buildings are currently being used for a Jobs Corps campus. A ways away from that area, the old complex of barns (picture below) is slowly tumbling down. They’re made of brick, so it may take a while.

You can park below the barns and ramble around the acreage on old roads and trails. There’s a great Frisbee golf course laid out, and it’s a dog friendly place. That’s why I was there the other day. I went with a friend and her two German Shepherds.

My friend took me up to the cemetery. About an acre in size and ringed with barbed wire, it looked like a cow pasture. As we walked across it to get to a single headstone on the far perimeter, our feet squished in the spongy soil, even though we had had several dry days in a row.

We saw a few small, round concrete markers that sat flush with the ground that had only a number and initials on them. There might have been twenty in all.

At the entrance to the cemetery, there’s a new brick monument-type wall with a plaque that says it is dedicated to the 1487 people who are buried in the cemetery. Looking around, it didn’t look to me as if the cemetery population was that large, so I came home and did some on-line research.

A man by the name of Noel V. Bourasaw, editor of the on-line Skagit River Journal, has written a nice history of Northern State Hospital, and he also has included a history of the cemetery written by Dave Evans. Mr. Evans recently worked on a project to identify all the people who were buried in the cemetery, but because of the way they marked the graves with simply initials and the hospital identification number, a lot of the information has been lost. He was unable to find a complete master key that cross referenced with the few markers that are left or that mapped out where in that acre of ground each person was interred.

Another thing that made identification harder was that, apparently, inmates performed the cemetery maintenance chores, and they would often lift out the round concrete markers to make mowing easier. They didn’t always get put back. Then, too, the ashes of cremated inmates didn’t always get buried. When the state closed the hospital, they found about two hundred tin cans stacked in a shed. Each can was filled with ashes and identified with the same pattern of initials and numbers that were used on the concrete grave markers. The cans were moved to a municipal cemetery shed where they languished for another period of years before they were finally buried, some of them forty years after cremation.

As Dave Evans worked at his identification project, he contacted next of kin whenever he could find any, but only had two people claim remains. Then he, along with Bob Cockburn and Cookson Beecher, worked for years to gather funds and set up a memorial marker to remember these forgotten people who had lived their last years in our area.

As Latter-day Saints, we’re used to serving the departed. We do that when we do our genealogy, when we tell family stories in Family Home Evening, and when we go to the temple. But the people we serve have names. They’ve been identified and tied us by blood. Standing there, reading that plaque, I was struck by the goodness of these men--Mr. Evans, Mr. Cockburn, and Mr. Cookson--who spent all that time and energy lobbying and working so that these people they didn’t even know, people who lived a cloistered existence, people often forgotten by their families while they were alive, wouldn’t be completely forgotten in death.

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Monique said...

What a story. Thanks for sharing.

Cindy Beck said...

What a touching, but sad story. Since my husband is a mental health administrator, I know many people with mental illnesses. I look forward to the time, when in the next life, they no longer have the infirmities that make life so difficult for them now.

Malin Price said...

It is so sad, all these people. My husband went there this summer for three weeks of threatment in the new hospital just beside it. It breaks me down to tears to understand that if he would have gotten there some decades ago his life would be tored apart. Now he is completely normal again (he has severe bipolar mania disorder). All due to medicins. It's a true miracle.

Liz said...

Thank you Malin, Cindy and Monique for your comment. We are indeed blessed to live in a time when we have the medicines we have for treating mental illnesses.