More than half of the headstones in the cemeteries of the Toledo State Hospital, the region’s oldest mental health facility, are restored, thanks to the Toledo State Hospital Cemetery Reclamation Committee.The committee has located and restored between 1,200 and 1,300 markers, a massive change from the three or four markers visible when the committee was founded in 2005 by Larry Wanucha, a housing support specialist for Neighborhood Properties Inc.
Wanucha learned of a cemetery reclamation project in Georgia completed about eight years ago, and he wondered if there was a state hospital cemetery in Toledo. It turns out there were two cemeteries on the grounds of The University of Toledo’s Health Science Campus.
He and co-founder Jane Weber gathered a group of volunteers consisting of what Wanucha described as “consumers of mental health care and other stakeholders,” of which there are now about a dozen active committee members.
“All of them are very passionate about restoring the cemeteries and bringing honor to those who are buried there,” Weber said.
The members include people connected to the former Toledo State Hospital, which is now the Northwest Ohio Psychiatric Hospital, as well as family members of those buried in the cemeteries and others with interest in genealogy and cemeteries.
The committee also includes other volunteers and student groups from area middle schools, high schools and The University of Toledo who have helped locate headstones. In particular, members of the UT community have loaned their time and expertise to the reclamation project, from individual students doing general labor to engineering students completing ground surveys.The committee estimates there are about 2,000 people buried in the two cemeteries, and the current count of markers is 1,994.
“The committee goes on Saturdays to try to find markers — which have numbers, not names — that have sunken into the ground,” said Kim Brownlee, manuscripts librarian at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, who has been involved with the project. “People volunteer their own time to find these markers, dig them up, and raise them to ground level with gravel in hopes that they won’t sink again.”
As part of the restoration, the committee has had Ohio historical markers placed at the sites.
The Toledo State Hospital, which opened in 1888, was the first mental institution in the nation built entirely on the “cottage system,” which housed patients in separate cottages and was based on the idea that mental illness was caused by the environment in which the person lived. Brownlee said doctors thought removing a patient from the stress of that environment and placing him or her in a clean, relaxing facility would help the patient get better.
The state hospital housed not only those with mental illnesses, but also those who were unable to be independent, such as people affected by injuries or developmental disorders.
“We’ve identified many reasons for admission: post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, old age, medical or neurological disorders — diseases like tuberculosis, syphilis or diphtheria — and others were admitted just because they didn’t know what else to do with them,” Weber said.
Those who died at the state hospital and whose bodies were not claimed by family or friends were placed in one of the two cemeteries. The older cemetery, which is located behind the new Bowsher High School on Arlington Avenue, contains those buried before 1922. The newer cemetery is located on the UT property and contains those buried between 1922 and 1973.
The group intends to put an additional monument in the new cemetery, place flags in honor of the veterans buried at both sites, and conduct other landscaping and improvement projects along with locating and restoring the remaining markers.
“We want to confront the stigma of mental illness,” Wanucha said. “Stigma is still present; patients now still aren’t getting the treatment they deserve because they are afraid of the stigma attached to the illness or because society does not value the increased quality of life treatment could provide to persons with serious mental illness.”
According to Weber, restoring the cemeteries is one way to reduce that stigma.
“When people come work with us, they learn an incredible amount about mental illness,” she said. “Part of our goal for volunteer student groups is to share that history.”
The reclamation committee welcomes volunteers. Those interested in participating in cemetery workdays can contact Wanucha at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.