COLLINS - Most people do not know where the Wheater Road Cemetery in the town of Collins is located unless they have been there before. Nestled at the bottom of a hill curving and twisting through woods, the Wheater Hill Cemetery is home to more than 1,200 individuals who are buried in unmarked graves.
People Inc., along with other volunteers, took on the project to help unearth buried grave markers and help bring new life to the cemetery that housed unmarked graves of patients of the former Gowanda Psychiatric Hospital.
Those who are buried in the cemetery were patients of the former hospital located where the current Gowanda and Collins Correctional Facilities currently located along Route 62.
OBSERVER Photo by Samantha McDonnell
People Inc. Director of Training Dave Mack Hardiman reads the names of those buried in the Wheater Road Cemetery in Collins. People Inc. helped restore gravestones that were no longer showing in the cemetery over the past three years.
The program was welcomed by Dave Mack Hardiman, director of training for People Inc. He welcomed individuals to the ceremony and introduced Chaplain Joel Terragnoli from Collins Correctional Facility offered prayer.
Associate Vice President Karen Lazik gave a brief history on the program which started more than five years ago.
"Our involvement began approximately five plus years ago and we were looking at various cemeteries ... where individuals were buried with no name (with) a number, sometimes you can't even see the head stones," Lazik said.
The Wheater Road Cemetery was the third cemetery that volunteers worked on. When they came in to the cemetery few years ago there were hardly no grave stones visible. All the grave stones in the cemetery are marked with a number and either a cross of a Star of David. Many markers do not have numbers or names and are left blank.
"This particular (cemetery), we saw three head stones ... it looked just like a field," Lazik said.
Hardiman agreed with Lazik saying a lot of progress has been made the past three summers volunteers worked at the cemetery.
"When we first walked through the gates more than three years ago you could see three stones, you can now see more than 500. Those stones were discovered and uncovered, washed, brushed, repositioned, reconditioned renovated (and) rejuvenated. Each grave marker treated as all people should be treated with the upmost care, honor, respect and reverence," Hardiman said.
Volunteers from various organizations have helped out with the cemetery restoration including volunteers from People Inc., Collins Correctional Facility, the Office of Mental Health, the Cattaraugus County Mental Health Association, Randolph Academy, Siena College and St. Bonaventure University.
The Collins Correctional Facility donated equipment for the project. The correctional facility have also donated their time to maintain the grounds.
"I think it is a remarkable project that People Inc. have undertaken the last three years to restore this cemetery to the condition that it is currently in. It has been a great pleasure, on behalf of the Department of Correctional Services, to provide assistance ... I want to thank People Inc. and all the volunteers for restoring this cemetery," Malcolm Cully, superintendent of Collins Correctional Facility said.
During the ceremony the names of those who are buried at the cemetery were read by Hardiman and Assistant Director of Training David Squires. Gowanda and Collins Historian Phil Palen helped gather the names of 40 of those buried in the cemetery. After the names were read, doves were released in honor of those who have passed away and are buried at the cemetery. The dates of death of the names read ranged from 1899 to 1961.
A heart shaped garden was also resurrected but the dedication was held off due to weather.
People Inc. started out the project by renovating the Jolls Road Cemetery in the town of Perrysburg. Four hundred individuals associated with three institutions, Gowanda Psychiatric, J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital and Western New York Developmental Hospital, were buried in this cemetery. People Inc. obtained permission to place a monument in the cemetery in honor of those who are buried and complied all of the names of the 400 individuals which were buried in that cemetery.
A ceremony was held in October 2006 to dedicate the monument. Lazik remembered that it was the October the freak snow storm had hit the region. Lazik received feedback after the ceremony which she read at Thursday's ceremony.
"Standing in a remote cemetery on a cold day seeing the unmarked field where so many lie interred and virtually unnoticed and to hear the stories and the names, it became clear that what we accomplished was the right thing and a very good thing," said the statement Lazik read.
The second cemetery which volunteers worked on was the Gowanda Psychiatric Cemetery, located on Route 62 in the town of Collins, where 550 individuals are buried. Volunteers worked on the cemetery during the summer of 2007 and a ceremony was held after the completion of restoration in summer 2007.
People Inc. will work on a cemetery located on Gothic Hill Road in Lockport. Restoration work will start in the spring.