Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Volunteers are undertaking a summer project to help Niagara County remember some of its “forgotten people.”
People Inc., the Williamsville-based, regional private human services agency, is leading the effort to uncover and restore the Niagara County Almshouse cemetery off Niagara Street Extension.
With restoration will come public acknowledgement of some 1,400 county residents who died at the almshouse between 1830 and 1912.
Plain field stones marked their graves — no one sprung for headstones or identifying markers for deceased “inmates” back in the day — and the stones gradually disappeared from sight after the almshouse closed. Nature overtook the burial ground so thoroughly, today most people wouldn’t know one is there.
People Inc. employees and volunteers will restore the cemetery to honor the dead — and highlight the strides that society has made in caring for its challenged members.
“In most cases we’ve read about, (almshouse residents) may have had mental health issues or developmental disabilities. These are the people we work with,” People Inc.’s Dave Mack-Hardiman, director of training, said.
Nineteenth-century almshouses, also known as poorhouses, were state-mandated, catch-all places of refuge for
people with needs not being met by family or friends: Orphans, unwed mothers, elderly, addicts, physically impaired, mentally ailing, et cetera. Some residents were temporary and others permanent. Altogether, they were “a mixture of people who, through circumstances not necessarily of their own making, couldn’t take care of themselves,” Niagara County Historian Catherine Emerson said.
Some of the language used to describe almshouse residents, in century-old reports such as the annual report of the State Board of Charities, reflects thinking that is ignorant by today’s standards. People who we’d recognize as having developmental disabilities were commonly labeled “imbecile,” “feeble minded” or “idiotic.”
Even so, according to Emerson, almshouses in their time were places of kindness and tolerance.
The Niagara County Almshouse occupied 170 acres on Niagara Street Extension, 110 acres of which were farmed by the residents. Output not used by the institution was sold to help cover expenses. Residents were not forced to work the farm so much as they were encouraged to chip in however much they were able, in the belief that any work they did, a lot or a little, would help raise their sense of self-worth.
Almshouse operators “really were very kind,” Emerson said. Almshouses “existed to make sure people weren’t living alone, dying, in a pig sty. ... People were kept, clothed and fed. On the whole, it was not a bad system, although by modern standards it would not appear to be too great.”
The catch-all system declined in the early 20th century, as medical/social, issue-specific institutions arose to meet people’s needs: hospitals, orphanages, asylums and the like.
People Inc. President James M. Boles, who’s written several books about the progression of care for people with disabilities, obtained the county’s permission to restore the Niagara Almshouse Cemetery and document the deceased who are buried there.
Several county departments are lending a hand, including the historian’s office, the sheriff’s department and the public works division, which will chip in equipment and labor to clear overgrowth at the site and set the foundation of a memorial bench being installed near the cemetery entrance. The bench is donated by Orleans Monument of Lockport.
Boles contacted county officials to gather information about the cemetery last year. His timing was ideal, public works deputy commissioner Robin DeVoe said, as DeVoe had been thinking about what the county could do to recover the Almshouse Cemetery.
He’d read one of Boles’ books and visited a few of the four other cemeteries in Western New York that People Inc. has recovered since 2006, and said he was quite impressed with their work — but also daunted, as county public works has no experience in restoration. Just when DeVoe was getting resigned to the idea that a minor cleanup was the most he could aspire to, Boles called him.
“Whatever things we can do for (People Inc.), we will do,” DeVoe said. “It’s pretty sad that people got buried and with nothing but a field stone; they were just forgotten people. We are proud to help them get some recognition.”
Old maps indicate the cemetery is somewhere on the top of a hill above the area where the almshouse once stood. Once the overgrowth is cleared, students from the Buffalo State College anthropology and earth science departments will go about the process of marking the cemetery’s four corners; they’ll use a ground-penetrating radar device to detect “disturbances,” places where graves might have been dug, and identify a pattern of graves, Mack-Hardiman said.
By this fall, People Inc. hopes to have a sign erected and a ceremony scheduled to show off the uncovered, beautified cemetery.
In connection with restoration, People Inc.’s Museum of disABILITY History will join forces with the county historian’s office to transcribe Almshouse, Census and other records and create a searchable data base of the residents who are buried there. The level of biography will vary from resident to resident, based on what’s in the records. Emerson said certain “personal” information — so and so was labeled a drunkard, or died from late-stage syphilis, for example — would be withheld out of respect for the dead and their descendants.