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2011-02-27 / Community View

Historical society remembers Oakdale

March 10 program on tap at Lapeer Center Building
BY JACOB HUNSANGER


This postcard shows an artist’s rendering of Oakdale when it was the Lapeer State Home and Training School. The facility took that name in 1956. During that time, it housed as many as 6,000 people. This postcard shows an artist’s rendering of Oakdale when it was the Lapeer State Home and Training School. The facility took that name in 1956. During that time, it housed as many as 6,000 people. LAPEER — Oakdale Regional Center once housed more than 4,400 patients and employed 1,500 workers in Lapeer. Two decades ago, the mental health facility closed its doors for good. All but two of its historic buildings have been torn down. The former dominating presence in Lapeer is gone.

“It’s sad,” said Joyce Bonesteel, secretary of the Lapeer County Historical Society. “It’s a way of life that no longer exists. We’ll never see it again.”

To keep and honor the memory of what was the area’s largest employer, the Lapeer Historical Society is holding “Memories of Oakdale,” a program March 10 at the Lapeer Center Building. The program will begin with a catered dinner at 6 p.m. Following dinner will be a presentation on Oakdale and its history. A table will be set aside for visitors to bring their own “artifacts” for others to see. The historical society is hoping to remind the community of the once prominent facility and how it affected Lapeer.


A set of cupolas from the former Oakdale Regional Center can be seen as part of the landscaping throughout Lapeer, including these two found at either end of downtown Lapeer. The design is also featured in the official logo of the City of Lapeer. Oakdale was a central part of life for many Lapeer residents until its closing in 1992. The former site now houses the Chatfield School and Mott Community College. A set of cupolas from the former Oakdale Regional Center can be seen as part of the landscaping throughout Lapeer, including these two found at either end of downtown Lapeer. The design is also featured in the official logo of the City of Lapeer. Oakdale was a central part of life for many Lapeer residents until its closing in 1992. The former site now houses the Chatfield School and Mott Community College. “It was like a family,” said Bonesteel. “Now it’s quiet and empty.”

The facility opened its doors to patients in 1895. At that time it was called The Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. It was comprised of only two dormitory buildings, one for men and one for women.

By 1956, the name of the facility had changed to the Lapeer State Home and Training Center. The grounds had significantly changed, with dozens of three-story brick buildings hosting the total population of residents and staff of nearly 6,000 people.

It was a nearly self-sustaining village by itself, as Oakdale housed a hospital, school, dairy farm, bakery, butcher shop, garage and laundry mat. At its height, it was one of the largest facilities for mentally impaired patients anywhere in the world.

Oakdale not only spread itself over the grounds in Lapeer and dozens of buildings, it also spread into the lives and homes of residents in the area. High school students attending classes at the votech center worked as interns at the facility, even helping with patient care. And some employees, being paid extra compensation by the state, took patients to live with them at home. That home care would be comparable to group homes and other assisted living facilities today.

Yet, for all the well-being the facility brought to many patients and the good it did the community, Oakdale had a dark history. Reportedly, many of the residents who lived there did not suffer from any mental or emotional challenges. A large number of children were dropped off during the Great Depression by parents who simply were unable to feed and care for them anymore. Other residents admitted to Oakdale, according to former employees, were overly promiscuous girls. Several residents living in Lapeer today still remember hearing allegations of abuse from within the facility.

On the former facility grounds, the Oakdale cemetery still stands as a reminder of the many residents who lived and died while there. The simple headstones are marked with a first name and patient number.

Downsizes first began in the 1970s. Patients were removed from the mental health facility and placed in group homes or released to the public. Eventually, the once impressive site was shut down and, in 1992, the Oakdale Regional Center closed its doors.

Immediately following the close of Oakdale, a massive demolition project destroyed all but two of the historic buildings. Those two building now comprise part of the Mott Community College building in Lapeer and a nursery building that was transformed into Chatfield School. During the demolition of the Oakdale facilities, a large statue of a dolphin was discovered. That statue, which was slated for disposal as well, was saved and is now on display outside the main office doors at Chatfield.

A set of cupolas were also saved from buildings at Oakdale before destruction.

Those cupolas are now on display at various locations including one near the Marguerite deAngeli Branch Library and others located at either end of downtown Lapeer on Nepessing Street. In fact, when the City of Lapeer changed its logo a few years ago, the image chosen for the background was one of the cupolas from Oakdale. The cupola is also incorporated into the design of the Front & Center page (page 3) of The County Press.

Whether it was a patient or employee, Oakdale touched the lives of thousands of Lapeer County residents over nearly a century of operation. Visitors are invited to bring photographs, documents or artifacts to show off at the Memories of Oakdale event. Visitors may attend the program for free and without tickets, but those choosing to attend the dinner as well must make reservations. Dinner costs are $9 for members and $10 for non-members. To learn more, or to make a reservation, call Geni Dorr at 810-664-5647 or Karren Deming at 810-245-8386.

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