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unmarked graveyard behind the former Brown County Mental Health Center

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  • Richard D. Hendricks
    February 2, 2010 Officials believe there may be an unmarked graveyard behind the former Brown County Mental Health Center / By Patti Zarling Green Bay Press
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2010
      February 2, 2010

      Officials believe there may be an unmarked graveyard behind the former
      Brown County Mental Health Center
      By Patti Zarling
      Green Bay Press Gazette

      Buried near the pockets of trees along the gentle slope behind the
      former Brown County Mental Health Center likely are the remains of
      residents who died decades ago.


      The deceased, lying in unmarked graves, probably were patients at the
      old Brown County Insane Asylum, built in the 1880s and eventually
      replaced by the mental health center. Or they were among the county's
      poorest of the poor, who lived out their final days in the nearby Brown
      County poor farm, maybe working at the apple orchard and farm to provide
      food for the asylum residents.

      The State Historical Society of Wisconsin researched the area about two
      decades ago, when work was done on Wisconsin 54/57, according to county
      officials. At the time, the goal was to make sure no graves were located
      in the right-of-way.

      The study concluded people were buried in the acreage behind the former
      mental health center, 2900 St. Anthony Drive, on Green Bay's far
      northeast side.

      The new Brown County Community Treatment Center opened last year, and
      the old mental health center is empty. County officials hope to find a
      developer willing to renovate the old place or perhaps to tear it down
      and build new.

      But before that happens, they want to identify the old cemetery and add
      markers to honor those buried there.

      "The real goal is to show our respects and to honor the deceased,"
      county Planning Director Chuck Lamine said. "Maybe we'd create some kind
      of a park area."

      The county is in the early stages of gathering information.

      Local historian Mary Jane Herber said the location makes sense for an
      old cemetery.

      Another old cemetery, or "potters field," sits near the new treatment
      center, sandwiched between Curry Lane and Wisconsin 54/57. Records show
      296 people were buried there between 1926 and 1973.

      Most of those buried at that site likely came from the Brown County
      Hospital, the mental health center or the poor farm.

      But because the poor farm was built around 1858, with the county asylum
      going up around 1881, the county needed a place to bury the dead before
      the potters field cemetery was opened.

      "Obviously there was a cemetery before that," Herber said.

      Those buried in the cemetery behind the mental health center likely were
      patients of the then asylum or residents of the poor farm, she said.

      Officials should be able to locate the graves behind the mental health
      center, she said. Because graves built decades ago settle, indentations
      form in the ground, Herber said.

      But identifying the buried would be a challenge. Records about patients
      were sealed for privacy reasons, she said.

      The boundaries of the site behind the mental health center were
      determined through on-site interviews with two center employees,
      according to a Historical Society letter dated May 17, 1991.

      One employee, a farm worker for the center since 1958, said he had
      experienced the farm tractor sinking into depressions at an old manure
      pile. At the time, the depressions were recognized as individual graves
      and were backfilled, according to the Historical Society letter. He was
      able to identify the area of the old manure pile.

      He and a former county management services director also said they
      remembered a conversation with a former patient who "had been involved
      with the preparation of the rough wood boxes and the interments,"
      according to the letter from the Highway Archaeological Program of the
      State Historical Society. The patient had described the old cemetery as
      located on the hillside near the old manure pile.

      According to the letter, a housekeeper for the mental health center also
      said she had heard bones were discovered when a path was built across
      the hillside in the late 1980s. She said a backhoe uncovered "several
      large fragments of bone," which at the time were assumed to be from
      animals raised on the county farm.

      A subsurface investigation in the area unearthed several bone and wood
      fragments. Probes were placed at one-foot intervals and were used to
      detect hollow spaces, which often indicate the actual coffin enclosure,
      the letter said.

      Both Herber and county officials want the area to be preserved.

      "Respect of the deceased is always important," Herber said. "If we don't
      respect the dead, who will respect us --- whether it's 50 years from now
      or 500 years?"

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