State home lives on in memories
LAPEER — At one time, it was basically a town in itself. Now all that remains are a couple of buildings that are being used for schools, some pathways and a near-forgotten cemetery, but the State Home lives on in the memories of people who lived and worked there.
The Lapeer County Historical Society has preserved some of the State Home’s fascinating history in its 2013 calendar.
According to Pioneer Families and History of Lapeer County, Mich., by J. Dee Ellis, in August 1893, Gov. John T. Rich, an Elba Township native, named a committee to decide the location of a state home for the feeble minded. Lapeer was in the running along with Saginaw, Bay City, Charlotte and Greenville. Lapeer was selected, partly because of the creek running through the property. It was thought the creek would be handy for sewage disposal, but a neighbor didn’t like that idea and the city ended up having to extend a sewer line to the property.
The Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic opened in June 1895, and there were more than 1,000 applications for employment prior to its opening. Later that year, in November, there were 91 male and 40 female inmates.
In 1910, a smallpox epidemic broke out at the asylum, and a company of the Flint National Guard camped out on the grounds that fall and winter to keep the disease contained to the asylum grounds. Many victims of the smallpox epidemic were buried in the now-forlorn cemetery at the southern edge of the grounds.
By 1919, there were 1,560 patients, and patient load peaked at more than 4,600 in the middle of the century. The home was the largest in the state and one of the largest in the entire country, and it was the largest employer in Lapeer County. Treatment options for the “feeble-minded” were changing by then, and the number of residents began its final decrease. By 1976 there were fewer than 1,500 patients but a record 1,386 employees.
The facility had a number of different names during its operation: The Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, the Michigan Home and Training School, the Lapeer State Home and Training School and, finally, the Oakdale Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities. Many who remember it now either refer to it as simply “the State Home” or “Oakdale.”
In February of 1990, it was announced that the state home would close in October of that year. The last three residents left the center at the end of September. In 1992, 400 acres that was once Oakdale was sold to the City of Lapeer for $1, and between 1992 and 1996, most of the buildings were demolished, and what was once a grand institution that was home to many and a living for many others became a memory.
Joyce Bonesteel of Arcadia Township, who did much of the work to research, write and compile information for the Historical Society’s calendar, has memories of the State Home that range back to her childhood, growing up on the family homestead on Oregon Road.
For a long time, she said, she’d hear a particular sound while she played on the farm, around the same time each day. She later learned it was the noon whistle from the Home. “To this day, I wish I could hear that noon whistle again,” she said.
Later, after Bonesteel dropped out of college, her mother suggested she get a job at the Home because, she said, the people who worked there drove nice cars. Bonesteel got the necessary training and in 1971 hired in as an attendant, providing direct care for the residents. Later, she decided to go back to school to pursue a journalism career, and said that while she couldn’t wait to leave her job at the Home to get her journalism degree, she later found herself working at The County Press, dreaming fondly about the days she worked at the Home.
“It’s had an impact on my whole life,” she said. “I never dreamed I would work there.”
“It broke my heart (when they tore it down),” she added.
Now retired, Bonesteel has been researching the State Home and is in the process of writing a book about it.
For now, though, you can learn a little more about the State Home’s history and support the operations of the Lapeer County Historical Society by purchasing a calendar for $10. They are available at the Historical Society Museum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. The museum is at 518 W. Nepessing St. in Lapeer.
They can also be found at the Hadley Township Historical Society, the Imlay City Historical Commission, Lapeer Area Chamber of Commerce, Blondie’s, the Book Shelf and Edward Jones-Mike Butterfield office.