From the Athens News, September 2, 2003


By Tom Walker

One hot afternoon in 2002, I found myself in the odd situation of putting earth through an archeologist's sifter to retrieve chunks of human bone disinterred by a groundhog. Accompanying me were volunteers (led by Sandy White) from the Gathering Place, our drop-in center for recovering mentally ill. The deceased, whose remains we subsequently reburied, had once been a patient at the old psychiatric hospital on The Ridges. The work was a small part of an effort to combat stigma by restoring three old cemeteries which together contain the graves of nearly 2,000 patients who died in the first 90 years after the founding of the "Athens Lunatic Asylum" in 1874.

Though state-owned, the cemeteries have been maintained by Ohio University since it bought the surrounding hospital complex for $1 in the 1970s. Though they have regularly mowed and trimmed most of the surface of the graveyards, the three-person grounds crew -- responsible also for the entire surrounding hospital complex -- have simply not had time to maintain steep parts inaccessible to rider mowers or to reset or repair hundreds of uprooted and broken stones. More than 120 graves in sloping areas had been consumed by woodland. And, in the extreme case mentioned above, a groundhog was disinterring one individual laid to rest in mid-February -- likely on a day so cold that his grave was left unusually shallow.

True, a number of old graveyards in Athens County are somewhat neglected. Two other factors made these cemeteries really stand out. First, most of these graves are marked only with numbers -- no names, no dates, no humanity. Second, these graveyards and the old hospital are part of a myth that Athens is one of the country's most haunted towns -- indeed a focal point of witchcraft. In the fall of 2000, Fox Family Channel featured "The Ghosts of Athens" in its program, "World's Scariest Places." And, some OU student organizers have actually included the cemeteries in their sadly successful Halloween Tours, "OU's Biggest Program Three Years Running."

Eventually, the neglect and nonsense stimulated Shelly Horvath of the 317 Board and Susan Culbertson (then area director for the Ohio Department of Mental Health) to convene various individuals concerned with mental health into an ad hoc committee (chaired by Bill Dunlap of the 317 Board) to address the issue. The broad purpose was to give dignity to the dead and, in doing so, combat stigma still suffered by their living counterparts. The original specific goals were to clear overgrown graves, reset and repair stones, fill grave dimples caused when coffins and bodies decompose, remove an old shack and barbed wire, create signage, erect wrought-iron entranceways, etc. Much of this work was done through the efforts of volunteer groups and young people in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) supervised by Jim Bernosky. Recently, an Athens city crew, led by graveyard guru Terry Gilkey, is lifting sunken stones and filling in the worst dimples in one graveyard.

The project grew. Soon it was decided to push for a bill in the General Assembly (currently in process) freeing up the burial records so that names could be put with numbers in a public directory. (It still takes considerable red tape to get information concerning the burial place of the deceased.) Later, the committee also decided to demystify the cemeteries by connecting them as parts of a 1.3-mile nature walk that would encourage the public to see them, not as haunted grounds, but as a places of contemplative beauty.

The nature walk is taking shape. Through the efforts of administrator Elaine Dabelko, Hocking College encouraged its departments to get involved in the project as "service learning" and outreach to the broader community. Last winter and spring, Mark Puhl's forestry management classes roughed out the nature walk itself -- following geographic contour lines.

In 2004, Ted Hayes' HC heavy equipment classes in environmental restoration will reconstruct an artificial pond at the base of the oldest cemetery. Other classes are making nesting boxes to encourage the return of bluebirds, etc. OU has assigned head engineer Ted Fares to oversee the pond project and will pay for a culvert for the spillway and the transportation of over 800 cubic yards of clay to be donated by the Athens/Hocking Landfill. And Dr. Cate Matise's crew of hospital patient volunteers have been clearing brush and weeds at the base of the stairway up Dairy Barn Hill.

When the project is complete, the public will be able to walk down the slope of the oldest cemetery to the pond where they will see wetland wildlife, then through a wooded area with wild turkey, etc., up through a scrub/grassland environment to the more recent cemeteries, through a little wooded park, and then down the treated lumber stairway -- constructed last year by the CCC -- to Dairy Lane.

Given the number of entities already involved in the overall project -- the 317 Board, Appalachian Behavioral Health Care (the psychiatric hospital), the Gathering Place, the CCC, the city of Athens, NAMI, Hocking College, Ohio University, etc. -- we feel confident now in applying for a grant from one of several local foundations to finance completion of all remaining aspects of the cemeteries restoration and nature walk project.

Eventually, Athens should be known less for witches and ghosts and more for its unique and beautifully restored hospital cemeteries and nature walk.

Editor's note: Tom Walker, a professor of political science at OU, is president of the Athens Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

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