As a child, Jerry Henry remembers living in an old farmhouse that sat on more than a hundred acres along St. Joe Road and was the site of the Fort Wayne State Developmental Center.

His father, Jerome, was a social worker and worked for the school, which at that time was called the Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth. Henry, a local entrepreneur, says his father took the job with the state to help the family with living expenses. “We were so poor, we didn't have a car,” Henry says. By taking the job, the state provided a car, housing and a food allowance, he says.

But living on the school's site, which was owned by the state, provided some interesting memories for Henry, who was elementary school age at the time, and his siblings.

It's these type of memories that officials with AWS Foundation and the History Center are hoping to capture as part of a project to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act by researching and documenting the history of the school and center to show how far society has progressed when it comes to people with disabilities.

Care for people with disabilities is different than it was 40 or 50 years ago, says Patti Hays, CEO of AWS Foundation. “Just in my lifetime it has changed,” the 64-year-old says.

She points to how the community now has Paralympians at Turnstone, adding that some of the athletes have the same conditions that many of the residents at the school had.

“If you had autism, you were institutionalized,” Hays says. And while there are still group homes, she says there is a different level of support for the residents.

She is hoping to receive other people's stories about how they have benefited from the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as their experiences with the state school. “There are probably things in the basement, things that grandma or grandpa had,” Hays says.

The State Developmental Center really played a major role statewide, says Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center.

Hays says people in central or northeast Indiana were brought to the center, so people would come from well outside the city.

Pelfrey says the school was open from 1890 to 2007; however, roots of the institution date to 1879.

Fort Wayne's role was to offer programs and compassionate understanding for individuals with disabilities or other issues, Pelfrey says.

“It was more than just an institution,” he says. “They not only provided care but also skills to the clients. It really sets it aside.”

However, Pelfrey notes that doesn't mean the center was without heartbreak. “There were many heartbreaking stories,” he says, adding that “it's so important for us to provide the context.”

He says it was a different understanding during that time of what it meant to give treatment, so it's important to see those changes, as well as in attitudes.

“It's one of the beautiful parts of this story,” Pelfrey says.


The Henry family lived in the farm home from about 1960 to 1964, Henry says. The school opened its doors on East State Boulevard in 1890. However, the school's population became too large and it was transplanted in 1960 to the site along St. Joe Road, which is now owned by Purdue University Fort Wayne. The state constructed 18 buildings on the 142-acre site.

Part of the site included a farm, which was worked by residents who could work, Henry says. The farm was near Henry's home and he remembers watching the residents working on the farm, which included hogs and corn that was used for feed. He says the residents would use horse-drawn wagons to farm. “A time or two we rode in the horse-drawn wagons,” Henry says.

However, Henry says the real story is the cemetery that is on the former school property. The school, which later had its name changed to the Fort Wayne State Developmental Center, would bury some of its residents who passed away in the cemetery. 

And while the center was closed in 2007 and later demolished, the cemetery remains on the Purdue University Fort Wayne site. Many of the graves are unmarked and it has been untended for years.

The cemetery was near the Henry home, and Henry says his mother would be upset when she would see a body being brought to the cemetery. Often, there would be no relatives and no funeral services, he says. His mother, Marganelle Henry, always wanted to go to the cemetery and have some kind of prayer service for the person, Henry says.

Hays says it's these kind of stories that are important to capture before it's too late. Unfortunately, she says, Marganelle Henry passed away in 2018, which means that her stories are lost.

Early research shows that the cemetery has more than 200 graves, Pelfrey says. “There could be many more.” 

Hays says those working on the project have gone through the death certificates from the school that show people died from such things as spina bifida and epilepsy. These days, people with those conditions are able to live functioning lives, Hays says.

But it is clear the cemetery is not unknown or forgotten to some. Pelfrey said that while visiting the cemetery, there was a grave that had been adorned recently. The grave marker was from 1965 and said “Our Beloved Dee Dee.”

The History Center is hoping to team with PFW archaeology students this summer to identify the boundaries of the cemetery.

New sign

The stories received will be used in a documentary by WFWA-TV PBS Fort Wayne.

In addition, the History Center will have a temporary exhibit this fall that focuses on the center, how the region has understood the people at the school and artifacts from the school.

Hays is also hoping to change the sign on the column stone that marks where the original school stood along East State Boulevard to make it more politically correct. Currently, the marker uses the words “retarded,” “idiot” and “feeble minded” to describe the residents at the school. She says that unfortunately these were medical terms used at that time. “You can't erase history.”

The old sign would be given to the History Center to exhibit.

She also hopes to finish the project with some positives, such as what life is like today for people with disabilities. The anniversary of the ADA is at the end of July.

In the meantime, Pelfrey says residents can send stories, photos or documents to the History Center or call 426-2882.

He says the History Center's broader mission is to share the community's history. The center has been “an underrepresented story and has been virtually for all of our history,” Pelfrey says.

“This has not been a popular history. It has been ignored, forgotten. It makes (it) ... all the more important that we're telling these stories now.”