Project marks graves of Rochester State Hospital patients

Published 3:25 pm Saturday, October 22, 2016

ROCHESTER — Elisa Skjordal was a 27-year-old mother of two young girls when she died as a patient at the Rochester State Hospital.

A white wooden cross was erected over her gravesite with a simple notation on it: 4344. It was her hospital case number. But her name was not included. Mental illness was viewed as such a shameful stigma at the time that patients were buried anonymously, their secret carried even into death.

For more than a century, Skjordal’s remains have rested, as time and encroaching vegetation all but obliterated the state hospital cemetery at Quarry Hill Park, as well as the memories of Skjordal and the more than 2,000 people who came to be buried there.

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Until now.

Thanks to a decade-long grave marker project and the work of genealogists, the memory of Skjordal and hundreds of other patients buried there is being resurrected. Along with their names and the cemetery, a part of Rochester’s history is being restored.

“If you go to any old cemetery, you see tombstones and gravestones that are just filled with history,” said Buff Hennessey, executive director of The Arc of Southeastern Minnesota, a disability advocacy organization. “And here it was kind of absences.”

That void now has been filled with row upon row of granite markers. Each marker, 18 inches by 30 inches, bears the person’s name, date of birth and date of death. The project cost more than $400,000 to complete. Most of the money came from the state Legislature but also included local dollars.

“It’s been a labor of love,” said Beth Thompson, a Rochester genealogist and volunteer who, along with her husband, John, have used state hospital records to retrieve the identities of the people buried at the cemetery.

A dedication celebration was held Sunday to mark the restoration of the cemetery, located at the Ninth Street Northeast entrance to the park.

And in the process, a glimpse is being afforded into the lives of these one-time patients — the people who, because of mental illness or depression, disability or chronic inebriation, found themselves housed at the Rochester State Hospital.

The Rochester State Hospital opened in 1879. And until its closure in 1981, it represented a societal attitude toward the mentally ill and disabled that called for their segregation and separation from society.

It became a community within a community. Some were admitted against their will. Others voluntarily admitted themselves. But once inside, none had rights that need be respected.

The state hospital could be a place of despair. Some patients ended their lives there by hanging themselves or jumping out of third-floor windows. In one case, a man jumped into a furnace. But it also could be a self-contained society, with its own mini-economy, where patients farmed and harvested their food and canned their own vegetables.

If patients died there, oftentimes their bodies were retrieved by family members and buried in their home cemetery plots. But a fraction, whether due to disconnection from family or cost, were buried in the sloped hospital cemetery nearby. They were placed in wooden caskets made by patients. In winter, when the ground was too frozen for digging, the caskets would be placed in a mortuary cave at the top of the cemetery hill until spring thaw made the burial possible. That practice ended in the 1950s.

What we know about the life of Elisa Skjordal, one of the patients buried there, has been pieced together by the work of Beth Thompson and her husband, John. Their research is based on state records available at the Olmsted County History Center and Minnesota Historical Library.

Skjordal was born Elisa Karoline Olsdotter in Norway on July 20, 1869. Her life, one gets the sense from the historical record, was not an easy one.

At age 8, she lost both her mother and father within days of each other. She married Olaf Skjordal, and in 1895, Skjordal, her husband and the couple’s 4-year-old daughter set sail for the U.S. to become immigrants in a new land. Skjordal was four months pregnant at the time of her journey.

The family settled in Austin and took up farming. But soon after giving birth to her second child, Skjordal began to suffer symptoms associated with postpartum depression. She was brought to the state hospital by a sheriff’s deputy.

Skjordal was described as quiet. She spoke no English. She complained frequently of headaches and was treated with massages, electrical treatment and “eggnog twice a day.” She worked in the hospital dining room, and her condition improved. She was visited by her husband. Ten months after her arrival, Skjordal returned home with her husband, deemed to be “quite normal mentally and in good physical condition.”

But three months later, she was back at the state hospital, physically ill, running a fever and in declining condition. Skjordal died a week later, the listed cause of death being “meningitis.”

Without a wife or family support system to fall back on, Olaf put his two young daughters in an Iowa orphanage. He moved to South Dakota and farmed there, eventually bringing back his daughters as they got older.

Many of the early patients to die at the state hospital were immigrants. The early graves were marked with a wooden cross with a number on it. When the crosses began to deteriorate and rot away, they were replaced by cement can markers.

By 2004, the state hospital cemetery — the resting place of Skjordal and more than 2,000 patients — was no longer recognizable as such. Overrun by trees and long grass, the cemetery had returned to a meadow-like state. Sledders used the sloped cemetery in winter to glide over the graves. The only thing that identified it as a cemetery were a dozen tombstones poking out of the long grass laid by family members. It had become a forgotten place.

But that was about to change.

Beth Thompson and her husband, John, were hiking at Quarry Hill one day in 2004 when they stumbled across an assortment of can markers. Each was stamped with a number. The markers had been pushed out of the ground by the frost, and city workers had tossed them aside when their mowers bumped into them.

“We weren’t sure at first what they were, and then determined them to be the grave markers for the state hospital,” Beth Thompson recalled. “I was just aghast that these markers were piled in the woods, discarded. A number was all that these people were given to remember them by.”

Their discovery was part of an alignment of events that would lead to the cemetery’s restoration. Through the years, efforts had been made to restore the cemetery, but lack of funding had proven to be the biggest obstacle.

In 2003, Jim Behrends, now director of Olmsted County Adult and Family Service, arrived in Rochester from St. Peter, where he had worked at the old state hospital there. He was aware of state dollars that could be tapped for cemetery restoration because St. Peter was doing the same thing there.

“I wasn’t even thinking that might be an issue here, until I took a walk out there and realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve got the same issue here,’” Behrends said.

Working through the disability advocacy group Advocating Change Together and its Remembering with Dignity project, dollars began to pour in to make the cemetery project a reality.

Officials say the final piece of the project is to complete a kiosk at the cemetery entrance. It will provide a history of the cemetery as well as a directory to help those searching for a gravesite.

Thompson said the project has been a dream of Rochester leaders and others going back decades.

“Those people really wanted this cemetery marked. That was their desire years and years ago,” Thompson said. “They all had a dream to mark the cemetery with names.”