More than 80 bodies are buried in a wooded corner of Ox Bow County Park with only yucca plants to mark their graves — and those are only the ones that are documented.
They were once residents of the Elkhart County Home — a big, white building along C.R. 45 in Goshen that provided the county’s elderly, poor or mentally ill with a place to work and rest their heads at night, said curator Paul Thomas with the Time Was Museum in Elkhart.
“The people didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “It was the poor house. Children would be threatened that if they didn’t behave, they would go to the poor house.”
The building was originally built as a nursing home, and Thomas said most of its residents probably suffered from dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Even though the Elkhart County Home was closed in 1977 and demolished in the 1980s, the Elkhart County Parks Department still gives tours of the former nursing home. Interpretive naturalist Krista Daniels has previously brought tour groups through the fields where residents used to till the soil and work.
“The people that lived here often had no money, had no family so there was no money to put headstones,” she said, walking down a worn dirt path through the yucca graveyard.
She pointed to the green shrubbery reaching out from under piles of dead, brown leaves. Daniels explains these plants were either used to mark the perimeter of the cemetery or as cheap alternatives to grave markers.
People knew the Elkhart County Home by many names, such as the “infirmary” or the “asylum,” Daniels said. Local children often referred to it as a “castle.”
The building was first built in 1886, a year after Elkhart County government purchased the 110 acres of land it was on for $5,000. It was a two-story brick structure that had 113 rooms and a basement. The facility even had its own hospital, but historian Paul Thomas said it was mostly for people with scrapes or a minor cold. The Elkhart County Home, however, didn’t rehabilitate its mentally ill residents, he said.
The Elkhart County Commissioner watched over the operations of the Elkhart County Home while the county council controlled its budget, according to an article published in The Elkhart Truth on Sept. 8, 1981. And while county taxes paid for the upkeep of the Elkhart County Home, its residents were able to sustain themselves by farming the land or taking care of livestock on the property.
Aerial photographs of the Elkhart County Home showed the property was surrounded by tillable cropland, which its residents might have used to grow corn, wheat or grain, Daniels said. They also tended to orchards.
Even though there were only a handful of residents in the home at the time Ox Bow County Park was established in the early 1970s, Daniels said they still farmed a small part of the property and took care of animals such as cattle. The Elkhart County Parks Department just built the park around them.
But after the Elkhart County Home was demolished in the 1980s, the land where the building once stood is not as lush as it once was.
“And I was told that when they demolished it, tore it down, they filled, because it had a basement,” Daniels said. “They filled that in with kind of cheap sand fill, so things didn’t grow in there very well, which is why it isn’t more lush or full of things because it has poor soil now.”
OLD-FASHIONED AND OUTDATED
Plants and dead leaves bury the sidewalk that once led people from C.R. 45 up to the Elkhart County Home. The winter stripped the trees and shrubbery lining the path bare, but park visitors can still make out the way that once led up to the structure’s front door.
All that’s left of the property today, however, are two water pumping stations and an outbuilding, which the Elkhart County Parks Department now uses for storage. The castle children once remembered seeing from the road is now just another line of trees blending into the scenery.
The Elkhart County Home had become outdated, and there wasn’t enough money to bring it up to date with other modern nursing homes and psychiatric facilities during the 1970s, Thomas said.
Thomas was part of a task force that advised county government about whether the Elkhart County Home should be demolished, and their recommendations were documented in a 1972 study which deemed the institution “old-fashioned and outdated,” according to an article published in The Elkhart Truth on July 18, 1972. Even then, the study commended the Elkhart County Home’s staff for taking care of its 54 residents with limited resources.
“The rooms were very, very small,” he said. “Sometimes, two people slept in a room that’s no bigger than a closet. They didn’t have a lot of recreation except for working on the farm. It was a place to go and vegetate.”
Staff members couldn’t keep up with the wear and tear the building endured throughout the years, and its list of problems started racking up. The flooring needed to be replaced, leaks had to be plugged and the ceiling was in need of repairs.
“It was very, very old, and it would have cost millions to renovate and to put it in a condition for people to live there pleasantly,” Thomas said.
A 1976 referendum to spend $1.6 million to build a new facility was defeated by a 2-1 margin, according to an article published in The Elkhart Truth on Sept. 8, 1981. Elkhart County Council also turned down the county commissioner’s request for $100,000 and $200,000 in 1976 and 1977, respectively, to repair the building.
Studies determined renovating the then 95-year-old building would have cost just as much as building a new structure of the same size.
The last residents of the Elkhart County Home were transferred to different facilities Nov. 10, 1977, according to a timeline posted in The Elkhart Truth on Oct. 26, 1981. Most of the people who used to live at the facility have since died, Thomas said.