Donations sought for state hospital cemetery renovation

BLACKFOOT — On a far corner of the State Hospital South grounds, well away from the public face of the facility, a dozen large trees stand sentinel.
Their branches stretch toward the sky, their leaves providing a tiny bit of shade.
A small sign declares "State Hospital South Cemetery, established 1886." A larger sign at the entrance awaits words. Two metals benches and a couple of small trees are new.
Few people know who is buried here. Fewer still know their stories.
Tracey Sessions, the administrator for State Hospital South, and members of her staff hope to change that.
"It's all about dignity and respect," said Sessions of a project designed to bring the cemetery into public view. "It's our opportunity to recognize these pioneers to get treatment for their mental illness."
One thousand twenty-two people are buried in the hospital's cemetery. Twenty have been identified through the work of family members with markers placed on their graves. The names and burial plot numbers of the others are in the records, but no markers tell the most basic elements of their stories — name, date of birth, date of death.
"The cemetery was used up until the 1980s," Sessions said. "The oldest graves date to the 1890s. There are Civil War veterans there. And there are a couple of stillborn babies who were born to patient mothers.
"Vicki Robinson did the research into the medical records so now we have a plot map," Sessions said. "But there are about 40 that don't show up on the plot map so we'll do a memorial park for those markers."
On Thursday, personnel at State Hospital South will conduct an open house in recognition of the facility's 125 years of service to the state and its citizens. From 4-6 p.m. the public will be able to tour the hospital grounds, watch a historical slide show and enjoy refreshments. People will also be able to buy a commemorative book and/or calendar. Proceeds from those items will go toward markers for those people buried in the cemetery.
At a cost of $50 per stone marker, Sessions estimates $50,000 is needed for completion of the project. The markers will lie flat to make care of the cemetery easy for hospital groundskeepers.
"It will be a slow process," she said. "We don't have a timeline. As we raise funds, we'll start doing them. We'll keep chipping away at it."
One thing that will help defray some of the expense is the use of granite recycled from the destruction of two buildings on the hospital grounds.
A quilt which Shelley Day pieced together from squares Sessions provided will be raffled by the National Allaince on Mental Illness (NAMI). The proceeds will go into the Cemetery Donation Account. The quilt will be on display during the open house.
Numerous local businessmen and women have provided materials and labor to help make the cemetery a fitting memorial.
"They were people, too," reminded Angela Loosli, a program specialist at the hospital. "There seems to be a stigma with mental illness but they deserve to be remembered."
Those who have helped make that happen include Premier Technology, Horrocks Ready Mix, Loosli Construction, Cleon Chapman and students in his Blackfoot High School metals classes, Spudnik and Pratt Logging.