State Hospital South places 120 headstones in cemetery

State Hospital South Administrator Tracey Sessions speaks during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, celebrating the placement of 120 new headstones at the hospital's cemetery. KENDRA EVENSEN / IDAHO STATE JOURNAL

State Hospital South Administrator Tracey Sessions speaks during a ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday, celebrating the placement of 120 new headstones at the hospital’s cemetery. KENDRA EVENSEN / IDAHO STATE JOURNAL

By Kendra Evensen
kevensen@journalnet.com

BLACKFOOT — There were only 15 marked graves at the State Hospital South Cemetery in Blackfoot in 2011, but thanks to hospital staff, community members and others who have participated in fundraisers in recent years, 165 graves have headstones today.

A group of roughly 25 people gathered at the cemetery for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday morning, celebrating the placement of the most recent 120 headstones — part of an ongoing effort to mark every one of the 1,000-plus graves in the cemetery.

Tracey Sessions, the hospital’s administrator, said the project is one that Blackfoot should be proud of. The hospital is part of the area’s history, and its cemetery includes a veteran of the Civil War, a legislator who served back when Idaho was still a territory and many others.

“The patients here were pioneers in the treatment of mental illness,” Sessions said, adding that she hopes to have every grave marked before she retires, although its a lofty goal. “They deserve respect and dignity.”

The 127-year-old hospital — formerly called the Idaho Insane Asylum — used to house patients for many years, if not the rest of their lives. And it was home to not only people with mental illnesses, but also those with tuberculosis, dementia, epilepsy and other neurological diseases, according to hospital officials.

Some of the patients underwent lobotomies, hydrotherapy, electric shock and other early treatments for mental illnesses over the years as doctors and researches tried to find new ways to help people.

And as a result of that early work, things are much different today.

Most patients only stay at the hospital for a matter of weeks now, and treatments are much more advanced and maintain patient dignity, hospital officials have said.

The patients buried in the cemetery established in 1886 played a role in those advancements. And that’s why hospital officials feel it is important to honor those buried in the cemetery in this way.

Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, agrees.

“This is a great project for people who had no family or nowhere to go,” she said, adding that she is glad to see the headstones placed in the cemetery she’s known about all her life. “I feel like this is an important thing.”

Although they have been able to mark 165 graves with headstones, there are still 860 more still waiting.

“We’re looking for more opportunities (to raise funds),” Sessions said, adding that each of the granite and concrete headstones cost $74.

Many people and organizations have donated to the cause — including some family members who have discovered their lost loved ones at the cemetery after hearing about the hospital’s efforts.

Lauren Watts, an office specialist with State Hospital South, said one couple recently drove to Blackfoot from Colorado, looking for details of a lost relative: Fred Marshal Sager.

Hospital officials said Sager suffered from multiple illnesses and eventually died from tuberculosis in 1957. His is one of the graves at the cemetery.

The couple not only found their lost relative on their trip to Blackfoot, but learned that Sager had married and had a daughter, hospital officials said.

“The search to piece together their family’s history started at State Hospital South,” officials said, adding that they are posting photos of the gravestones on www.billiongraves.com to help more people find their relatives.

Many of those buried in the cemetery had no family to speak of, or at least no family members who knew of their location, so they were buried in the unmarked graves in the cemetery between the 1880s and the 1980s.

Watts said she is grateful for the opportunity she has to help place headstones on those graves, and is excited for the families who are finding their relatives.

“It brings closure (for the families),” she said.

Hospital officials hope to have 300 graves marked by next Memorial Day. For more information about their project, call 785-8405. Donations can also be sent to: State Hospital South Cemetery Campaign, P.O. Box 400, Blackfoot, ID, 83221.

State Hospital South hopes to place headstones like this one on all of the unmarked graves at its cemetery. KENDRA EVENSEN / IDAHO STATE JOURNAL

State Hospital South hopes to place headstones like this one on all of the unmarked graves at its cemetery. KENDRA EVENSEN / IDAHO STATE JOURNAL