- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. (AP) - The idea was simple: Bring a touch of dignity to a tucked away, barren cemetery that lacked reminders of its dead.

But it’s been a far more exhaustive project than any of its organizers could have imagined.

The Outagamie County Cemetery is the final resting place for 133 people who died while confined at its former asylum for the chronic insane. Supporters of the project figured it would take about six months to complete.

That was two years ago.

“We were all pretty naive,” Mary Robertson, a lead organizer, told Post-Crescent Media (https://post.cr/1PaNp3L ).

Still, leaders say today that their enthusiasm hasn’t waned, and they’re drawing ever nearer to bringing their good intentions to reality.

They anticipate work will be done at the cemetery this summer. They will add a granite memorial stone listing the names of those who interred at the site. They’re planning for a trail on its edge that ends at a pergola and a granite bench.

Organizers can’t begin the project, however, until the Wisconsin Historical Society approves the land survey and site plan. They’re confident that will happen.

The county’s cemetery oversight committee and a larger group of supporters - Friends of Outagamie County Cemetery - hope to have a dedication ceremony in early fall.

In one sense, they can already claim success. Their goal was to shine light on the forgotten, and they’ve achieved it.

For many years, the site was littered and grown-over. The cemetery is now maintained, but it has become more of a curiosity than a place of reverence. That’s changing.

The metal, road-type sign identifying the grounds carried a misspelling of the word “cemetery.” The county’s highway department recently fixed that error, even though the sign will be removed in a matter of months.

“I was really taken back by that,” said committee member Laurie Shinkan.

The asylum was opened in 1889, along with a farm that provided work to those who were confined there. The farm closed long ago and the asylum building was razed. Brewster Village, the county’s nursing home, stands near the site of the former asylum. The cemetery is situated just north, is accessible by a trail and lies within Fox Valley Technical College’s truck training course.

Those who launched the effort never expected the formation of a county committee to oversee the project. They didn’t expect the need for state-level approvals or getting high-tech assistance from an anthropologist.

Gwen Zimmerman was among those who ignited the project. She’s found meaning in the many steps and requirements they’ve worked through along the way. The same level of detail is required of them as it would be for those planning changes at any of the larger, adorned and manicured cemeteries.

“It’s something these individuals are deserving of,” Zimmerman said.

There was a strong effort to change the name from “Outagamie County Insane Asylum Cemetery” to one that honors the people who are buried there. Organizers learned by reviewing historical documents that “insane asylum” wasn’t part of name, as the sign suggests. They’re satisfied with “Outagamie County Cemetery.”

Shinkan said the Wisconsin Historical Society has supported the project and offered clear expectations.

Steve Seim of Beaver Dam has been researching the state’s institutional cemeteries for several years. He praised Outagamie County’s efforts while noting that many similar county cemeteries are in rough shape. The Outagamie County project speaks to important shifts in our society, Seim said.

“(The asylum) was a way to deal with them; to get them out of the way and often they were forgotten in their own lifetimes,” Seim said. “When we don’t maintain the cemeteries, they’re forgotten to history, as well.”

Zimmerman said it’s likely many of those who were confined led a better life in the asylum in earlier eras than they would have elsewhere. It’s important to recognize their lives today, since records show how little recognition they received from the community back then, he said.

The birth dates of many of those buried in the cemetery are unknown. There’s uncertainty to the spelling of surnames among some of those interred.

“That wouldn’t happen today … no matter who it was,” Zimmerman said.

The institution’s long-ago terminology illustrates how society regarded those with mental illness or disabilities. Patients were referred to as “inmates.” The process of release was referred to as “parole.”

Last year, Peter Peregrine, a Lawrence University anthropology professor, and his students conducted a geomagnetic survey of the grounds. They identified 133 burial plots, and there was great relief that the number of plots matched up with the records.

The presence of the county committee ensures that upkeep will continue after the memorial is placed.

“We have so many people who have come forward to help with this, and they’re just as excited today as we were two years ago,” Robertson said.

___

Information from: Post-Crescent Media, https://www.postcrescent.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide