Sometimes you expect something, but then it turns out to be something totally different!
The Agnews Historic Cemetery and Museum in Santa Clara sounded to me like a very cool burial ground with interesting tombstones and I thought the museum would be related to that.
When you enter you see to your right a gated grass field, that is probably the size of half a soccer field. I later learned this to be the burial ground for 600 people. To the left in a small cottage building is the museum. Upon entering I was greeted by Pat, a volunteer at the museum and former employee of the Agnews State Mental Hospital, who helped me uncover the mystery of this institution.
Agnews, it turns out, was the largest hospital for the mentally ill in the Bay Area during the Gold Rush, with over 1,200 patients at a time. Back in those days there was no industry near and they had to be self-sufficient. The patients worked to earn their stay in the hospital’s own cannery, or they made mattresses or tended to the pigs and chicken. This place was almost like a little village with a pharmacy and their own fire station.
Unfortunately the 1906 earthquake destroyed a lot of the buildings, including the prominent clock tower and was responsible for the loss of many lives at the hospital. In fact this was the largest tragedy of that quake which killed more than 100 people. When they rebuilt Agnews it was considered the most progressive institution in the 20th century, as they established a ‘cheerful’ place.
In 1971 the Laterman Act transferred mental health programs to local communities and as an outcome of this the state closed many hospitals, including Agnews.
In the late 1990’s, the area got bought by Sun Microsystems. Sun had to keep some of the historic buildings and the cemetery and park for public use.
Today Oracle owns the land; the restored clocktower building is now a center for the developmentally disabled. The park in front of the buildings is a nice quiet space and in a pavillion you can read about its former glory.
The Agnews Historic Museum and Cemetery is only open on Fridays from 10 am – 2 pm, no admission.
Have you ever heard about the Agnews?