From the Athens News, September 2, 2003


By Nick Claussen

Decades ago, many people found themselves in the mental hospital on The Ridges in Athens, and were treated there but forgotten by the rest of the world.

They lived out their lives on the forested hill, and when they died, many of them were buried in the three cemeteries on The Ridges, with just numbers on their gravestones.

Today, a group of area residents are working to restore some of the old gravestones and remember the lives of the people who lived in the old asylum. They also are working to wipe away the stigmas surrounding mental illness. Some of the volunteers are using the work to help themselves with their own problems.

Ohio University now owns the site of the old insane asylum/mental hospital on The Ridges, and the mental hospital has moved across the river into the flats along the Hocking River. The land at The Ridges is used for offices, parkland and other university uses, and many people don't know much about the cemeteries except for hearing stories that they're haunted.

Many of the local people working to rehabilitate the cemeteries cringe at the old ghost stories, and say that the cemeteries should be remembered and honored for the people who are buried there, just as any other cemetery.

On Friday, a group of local residents gathered in one of the cemeteries to repair the gravestone of Joseph Edward Spencer, who died in 1931. He was the great-grandfather of Jenny Hughes of McArthur, who learned about her ancestor when she was learning about some of her own mental health problems.

Hughes took part in the Athens Photographic Project, under the direction of Elise Sanford, a few years ago. The project was designed to help people with mental health issues work through some of their problems. The project helped Hughes immensely, she said, and inspired her to learn more about her great-grandfather, who had been something of a mystery to the family.

Her husband, Bill Hughes, researched some of the history, and then the two of them worked on the project together. Jenny Hughes found out that her great-grandfather likely had bi-polar disorder, which she and her husband both suffer from. She and her husband, as well some others at the gathering on Friday, probably would have been sent to the old Athens Asylum to live as well if they had lived at the same time as Spencer.

"I'm carrying on for him," Jenny Hughes said.

Pete Wuscher, who was also at The Ridges on Friday, said that Spencer is having an impact on area residents and helping to eliminate the stigma of mental illness more than 70 years after he died.

"God rest his soul," Wuscher said while the stone was being fixed over the grave.

THE THREE CEMETERIES AT THE Ridges have many problems. Headstones have sunk into the ground, broken or fallen over, and been moved from the graves. At the corner of one of the cemeteries rests a pile of old headstones, discarded there after they could not stand or were moved from the graves they were marking.

The cemeteries are beautiful, quiet places up on the hills in the Ridges, but the pile of gravestones and the look of some of the stones that have sunk into the ground is desolate and sad.

Hughes, Wuscher and several others, though, are trying to change that as well.

TOM WALKER IS president of the Athens Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

He said Friday that area residents, Ohio University, Hocking College, the city of Athens and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) are working together to make improvements to the cemetery to better honor the people who are buried there.

As graves settled over time, their headstones often sink into the ground, Walker said. A work crew from the city of Athens, led by Terry Gilkey, has been filling in the ground underneath the headstones on the Ridges to prop the headstones back up and fix these markers, Walker said.

Area residents are working to fix some of the gravestones that have been broken and to find the graves for stones that have been discarded after they broke, Walker said. Also, more than 120 graves in sloping areas had been forgotten and overgrown by woodlands, he said. The local volunteers are trying to clean up these areas as well.

The CCC last year built a wooden staircase up the hill from Dairy Lane to one of the cemeteries, and Hocking College and OU are working together to build a pond near the cemeteries.

In addition, the volunteers already have cleared a 1.3-mile path connecting the three cemeteries, and they eventually hope to make it a walking trail so area residents can enjoy the scenic beauty as they walk from one cemetery to the next.

The groups also hope to make information on who is buried in the cemeteries more available to area residents. The Ohio Legislature is considering a bill to make these records more accessible to the general public, Walker said.

The information on the cemeteries at the Ridges is currently kept at Alden Library, Walker said. Walker has a son with mental health issues who is doing well, he said.

Sanford said that many area residents have relatives buried on the Ridges. Often, she said, older area residents with mental health problems were sent to the Ridges to live out their lives and then were forgotten about.

By fixing up the cemeteries, the volunteers are helping ensure that the people buried there will be remembered and honored, Sanford said. It is a good thing for the people buried there, and a positive thing as well for many of the people working on the project, she said.

Hughes said that the work has helped her with her own issues, and has inspired her to reach out and help others. Hughes is still looking for additional information on her great-grandfather, and anyone who can help her should e-mail her at

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