2018-06-13 / Community View

Oakdale erased from the earth

Contributing Writer

Diamond Dismantling demolished all but three buildings at Oakdale Regional Center, starting in late December, 1996 and removed the rubble. The Detroit company was hired by the City of Lapeer, owner of the property where a state institution once stood. Diamond Dismantling demolished all but three buildings at Oakdale Regional Center, starting in late December, 1996 and removed the rubble. The Detroit company was hired by the City of Lapeer, owner of the property where a state institution once stood. Editor’s note: This is second of a two-part series about the fate of Oakdale Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities, formerly known as the Lapeer State Home and Training School.

LAPEER — The sun rose like a blood red ball burning through the mist on the last day anyone lived at Oakdale Regional Center.

No crowds showed up to see the end of an era that Friday in late September, 1991. Employees huddled together in Bldg. 45, the nursery, waiting for a call to send the last two young men out into the world. A cold wind gusted across the grounds.

The attendants and a housekeeper or two talked idly and laughed at wisecracks. The tension lingered. Finally the telephone rang. The residents were told to get their jackets on, and a man led them out the door to a station wagon parked near the building. Then he went back inside.

He left the engine running and the driver’s door wide open to the relentless wind. After a few moments a male resident wearing a blue parka and jeans got out, swept the door shut and returned to the back seat. Soon the employee came back out, got behind the wheel and the car drove away.

Dr. David Ethridge, the superintendent, said a sick girl in the hospital was transferred at 4 p.m. The employees left. At 4:30 p.m. he was the last person to leave the grounds.

Less than 35 men and women would come back on Monday to provide maintenance, security and community living services, such as paperwork and overseeing patients in group homes. Compared to the staff size in recent years they were a skeleton crew keeping the state institution on life support.

Realistically, Oakdale was dead at the age of 96. The massive brick buildings had housed hundreds of thousands of mentally retarded men, women and children over the years. Now they were empty, the windows reflecting a bleak future.

The Michigan Dept. of Mental Health was undecided about holding on to some of the remaining 300 acres or dividing it into parcels. If no governmental units wanted the land, it could be sold or rented to private interests, DMH spokesman Thomas DeLoach said, according to a Flint Journal report.

Early on, Lapeer Mayor Al Gelhausen worried about a second prison opening on the property. Administrators from the Michigan Dept. of Corrections toured the place in June, 1990, with the speculation of remodeling the buildings for female convicts, elderly inmates or the mentally ill.

Senator Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, vowed to hold the state to its promise of no more prisons in Lapeer’s back yard. The mayor still fretted, however, because they didn’t get it in writing.

Laid-off employees, on the other hand, considered the prison concept the next best thing to keeping Oakdale open because they could be retrained and continue working there, said Cathy Cockerill, president of ASCME Local 567.

In its peak years the institution boasted nearly 2,000 acres, much of it farmland. The last land split took place in the early 1980s, when the state earmarked a site for the Thumb Correctional Facility. It opened in 1987

City commissioners called for a two-year residential college on the Oakdale site. A perfect plan for Mott Community College of Flint, looking to open a new campus in a neighboring community. The buildings could be student dormitories.

Lapeer Regional Hospital administrators talked with the county health department about using Oakdale’s 125-bed hospital to provide pre-natal care for low-income pregnant women. The probate court considered opening a juvenile detention center somewhere on the grounds.

Not long after Oakdale closed, the state appeared to lose all interest in the property. In July, 1992, state Rep. John Strand, R-Lapeer, introduced a bill to sell 191 acres, including 23 empty buildings, to the City of Lapeer for $1. The legislation succeeded. The city took ownership for next to nothing but was restricted to non-profit use, such as schools, hospitals and government.

City Manager George Strand told legislators the city wanted to take over maintenance. The Department of Public Works would move into one of the buildings. Woodside School, owned and operated by the Intermediate School District, was on Oakdale land and relied on the power plant for utilities and central heating.

Meanwhile, the city had its hopes pinned to earning lucrative rent money when MCC opened a full-service campus on the grounds and leased several buildings. That dream was dashed when a new MCC board of directors drastically cut back on the original plan and moved into just one building, the old nursery. They spent $180,000 converting it to classrooms and signed a two-year lease. Rent was $50,000 a year.

George Strand hired real estate pro Jayne Frank of Goodrich to market the Oakdale property. She was given the title of economic development director and $40,000 a year. The Tax Increment Financing Authority would cover her $1 million budget.

With the city’s permission she applied for a $225,000 Rebuild Michigan grant to demolish the five worst buildings on the grounds: the former infirmary, laundry, shipping-receiving, a garage and the woodshop. They had been vacant and unheated for years. The city had to match the funds.

Frank sent out 4,000 letters to government and public service agencies, asking them to relocate in a building at Oakdale. She received 200 replies that said thanks, but no thanks. Another project was to work with a company that could develop a retirement center.

Over the past decade, the state had closed two air force bases and six mental health facilities. Oakdale was the only one with restrictions. Legislators agreed to lift them so the city could proceed with development. Rental incomes were desperately needed to cover the $600,000 annual maintenance costs.

Jayne Frank worked with Retirement Resources Inc., a Manchester corporation with a broad financial base. RRI wanted to partner with the city to create a senior citizens center, medical complex and apartments. Rent would cover the maintenance costs. The city paid for half of RRI’s $45,000 feasibility study that showed there were enough seniors in the area to support the project.

When Frank returned from a week’s vacation, however, George Strand met her at her office door and said she was getting laid off. Oakdale was not being developed.

“Last Friday RRI came to Lapeer with occupancy plans for more than 300,000 square feet of space,” Frank told The County Press. “The city manager said he was not interested. He said the buildings were coming down.” She accused Strand of dragging his feet on negotiations to lift restrictions because his plan was to “dump Oakdale back on the state.”

Two weeks earlier, city commissioners voted 4-1 to close the power plant that fall. The city would slash a large percentage of its maintenance expense but the buildings would no longer be heated. They would soon deteriorate beyond repair.

The ISD board spent $84,000 on a boiler system at Woodside School. The cost included disconnecting the pipes from Oakdale’s power plant and connecting with Detroit Edison and Consumer Power lines.

In November, 1996, city commissioners hired Diamond Dismantling of Detroit, the lowest of 10 bidders, to demolish and remove all buildings, tunnels, roads and structures west of the Mott building, not counting Woodside, at a cost of $898,409. State grants helped pay the tab.

Bulldozers and the wrecking ball rolled in at 1 p.m. Dec. 30. Men wearing hard hats began clearing the institution off the face of the earth. People who once worked there and other sentimentalists, perhaps sad to see the place destroyed, carried cameras across the frozen grounds, snapping photographs of the buildings before they came crashing down.

Enough bricks would be saved to build a memorial to the former state institution, said John Lyons, director of public services. Cupolas were salvaged and incorporated as small landscape designs here and there in Lapeer.

Only three buildings were destined to remain standing and occupied: Bldg. 71, the former one-story brick administration building that is now part of Chatfield School, Bldg. 45, the nursery, now home to MCC and Woodside, today known as Rolland- Warner Middle School.

Moss covers the headstones in a secluded cemetery and the wind has strewn dead leaves over the graves. Some patients were buried there in the typhoid epidemic of 1910.

There are few if any more traces of the small village that bustled for nearly a century. No bakery, no central kitchen, no brick dormitories where hundreds of employees looked after thousands of patients. No hospital, no sewing room, no shoe shop. No lowing of cattle, squawking of chickens and squealing of pigs.

The train hasn’t stopped there for decades, to unload 100-pound bags of flour and sugar, and huge canisters of butter. The blacksmith shop and slaughterhouse are distant memories. Nature has reclaimed the land. We’ll never see the likes of Oakdale again.

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