Some of the graves were unearthed for the first time in decades as volunteers used trowels, shovels, rakes and jugs of water to clean up the long abandoned Frankfort State Hospital and School Cemetery.
The hospital and school, open from 1860 to 1972 and originally known as the Kentucky Institute for the Feeble-Minded, was home to thousands of mentally and developmentally disabled for more than a century.
The cemetery, off Glenns Creek Road beside the Frankfort Cemetery and the Cabinet for Health Services building, had largely been forgotten until three groups that promote the rights of those with disabilities organized the clean up. With Memorial Day on the horizon, volunteers placed a small U.S. flag by each grave.
“It’s a shame when you look across the street at Frankfort Cemetery and that is well maintained and part of the community, and a lot of us spend time in there,” said Jeff Edwards, federal program coordinator with Kentucky Protection & Advocacy.
“It’s just been abandoned, for lack of a better word.”
Edwards said Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities’ advisory board, made up of individuals with disabilities, decided to honor those buried at the cemetery.
Most of the graves are marked “unknown,” and he counted between 400 and 500 headstones in the small, sloping plot.
KP&A partnered with PADD and Kentucky Self-Advocates for Freedom Inc., and more than 50 volunteers turned out Thursday.
“It’s amazing,” Edwards said of the turnout.
He said he’d like to see the cemetery get an annual cleaning and possibly a historical marker to commemorate one of the last reminders of the campus, which featured a farm, workshop, dormitories and school and medical buildings.
The cemetery also has a place in state and national history. Union and Confederate troops raided the school in 1863, and inmates from the Kentucky State Penitentiary were housed there during the 1937 flood, the second worst in recorded state history.
The site isn’t on the state’s register of cemeteries, but Ann Johnson with the Kentucky Historical Society was on hand to photograph and document the cemetery.
“I’m going to register it, but I wanted to come get some pictures today with the people working,” she said. “It’s just incredible.”
Some of those who rolled up their sleeves include former staff and residents at the facility.
“It’s great now,” said Linda Thomas, a former teacher at the school during the late 1960s, of the freshly groomed cemetery. “It’s wonderful because people have just forgotten.”
Heather Bava, support staff for former resident Mark Newton of Campbellsville, said Newtown was stunned to see how many graves were marked “unknown.”
“While they’ve been doing research on the Frankfort State Hospital, Mark’s been helping and doing his part to try to remember what he can remember from when he was living here,” Bava said. Newton lived at the facility twice during the 1960s and 1970s.
Others who helped clean graves were parents of those with disabilities. Tim Smith, whose 22-year-old son Mike serves on the PADD board and thanked volunteers during a short break, said Thursday was a profound experience for his son.
“At first he wasn’t too much about getting into this, but since he’s got here, the lights are turning on to where he can realize what he’s doing,” said Smith, of Bracken County. “He’s doing good work when he’s doing this.”
Seeing volunteers unearthing unknown graves from inches of dirt also had a significant impact on Smith.
“It’s easy to forget when people are gone, and it’s great to put this kind of effort into recognizing the people that are here and were the start of the programs that we’re benefiting from now,” he said.
“They paid the price for the benefits we’re reaping now.”