People Inc.'s Museum of disABILITY History Holds Ceremony to Mark the Restoration of the Niagara County Almshouse Cemetery
Recitation of Names Laid to Rest, Volunteer Recognition and Unveiling of Merritt-Spencer Monument Included
The Museum of disABILITY History, a project of People Inc., and Niagara County officials held a ceremony June 5, 2014, at 10 a.m. at the Niagara County Almshouse Cemetery, 5526 Niagara Street Extension, Lockport, to mark the restoration of the neglected cemetery and honor the lives of the more than 1,400 Niagara County Almshouse residents who died and were buried there, most with unmarked graves, between 1830-1916.
Staff from People Inc. and the Museum, along with volunteers, have been working for two years to clear 96 years of overgrown brush and beautify the space. Today, the ceremony included the unveiling of a special memorial plaque and refurbished Merritt monument, the only inscribed gravestone at the location. Approximately 40 names of individuals laid to rest in the cemetery were read during the program. William Ross, chairman, Niagara County Legislature, presented a proclamation for the cemetery restoration event.
Seven years ago, People Inc. and the Museum of disABILITY History aligned with the nationwide Operation Dignity movement to restore institutional cemeteries. This is the fourth cemetery staff and volunteers have helped to restore. Other projects included Jolls Cemetery in Perrysburg, Gowanda Psychiatric Center Memorial Cemetery and Wheater Road Cemetery in Collins. The fifth cemetery restoration is underway at Craig Colony Crematory in Sonyea. In total, approximately 5,000 graves have been touched by the work.
As news of the restoration projects has spread, area families have come forth to identify their ancestors. Through this effort, people like Chris McDonough, a Texas resident with ties to Western New York, have been able to take heartfelt glimpses into their family histories.
“You have given us our grandfather,” said McDonough in an email to Dave Mack-Hardiman, a People Inc. associate vice president who has spearheaded the project. “We never met him as the family kept his life a secret to all of us children. Thank you so much for giving us a small part of his life. Growing up we were told he had passed away in the 40s. Modern technology and your help has changed that narrative.”
“It has been a unique opportunity to help family members identify their ancestors through the restoration project,” said Mack-Hardiman. “Though our efforts, we have helped at least 50 people learn more about their family members.”
It is estimated that more than one million Americans are buried in institutional cemeteries. Many of these lonely resting places have fallen into disrepair or neglect. Row upon row of numbered gravestones or cast iron markers are the eternal symbols of institutional depersonalization. Some families have searched for decades for names or any shred of information about their ancestors who are buried under weeds and tangled vines.
As such, New York State agencies like People Inc., who serve people with developmental disabilities, have been involved in renovating these final resting places and have pushed for support for S.2514, legislation that would amend the Mental Hygiene law in order to permit Department of Mental Hygiene agencies to make available the names, dates of birth and dates of death of patients buried in state mental health hospital cemeteries in order to permit headstones and other memorializations. The bill is currently in the State Senate and the hope is it will be approved in the Senate and Assembly in the 2014-2015 session.
Those who have been instrumental to the Niagara County Almshouse Cemetery restoration work include New York State Senator George Maziarz, Chairman William Ross and the Niagara County Legislature, Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, Niagara County Division of Buildings and Grounds, Niagara County Historian’s Office, Niagara County Clerk’s Office and Buffalo State College. Orleans Monuments and Calamar Construction also contributed.
The Museum of disABILITY History, a project of People Inc., is dedicated to the collection, preservation and display of artifacts relating to the history of people with disabilities. The mission is to tell the story of the lives, triumphs and struggles of people with disabilities as well as society’s reactions. The Museum of disABILITY History, located at 3826 Main Street in Buffalo, NY, offers educational exhibits, programs and activities that expand community awareness.
People Inc. is a not-for-profit health and human services agency providing programs and services to more than 12,000 people with special needs, their families, and seniors throughout Western New York. People Inc. currently employs 3,500 and assists individuals to achieve greater degrees of independence and productivity since 1971.