In a time where fun and socially distant activities are hard to come by, the Southeast Ohio History Center is revitalizing one of its most well-known events: Athens Asylum Walking Tours.
The History Center has been doing the Asylum tours at The Ridges for about five years. The tours have been met with a lot of popularity. With very few options of ways to connect the History Center with Athens residents right now, the staff felt the outdoor activity would be a safe way to have some educational fun.
Tom O’Grady, director of development and outreach for the History Center, said the tours will generally be scheduled once a month, except during Ohio University Homecoming weekend and the month of October, where the fascination for haunted locations peaks. People can also schedule custom tours by appointment.
The staff is requiring the use of masks during the tour. Initially, the plan was only to encourage, but as cases of COVID-19 rise in Athens, O’Grady said it’s important to keep people safe. It’s these precautions that make O’Grady and the rest of the History Center’s staff feel confident in the decision to reignite the tours.
“We are trying to be relevant and to remain on people’s radar,” O’Grady said in an email. “We have lowered the price of the tours and decreased the number of people able to attend any particular tour due to the virus. So, these tours are not going to solve any financial needs the organization is facing. We also operate out of a sense of service to the community. We wanted to offer opportunity to local residents. But, if the service collides with safety we will change strategy.”
Though the tours now stem from the History Center, the heart of it stems from George Eberts.
Eberts worked at the asylum back in the 1980s, when it was known as the Athens Mental Health Center, as the staff education specialist. A huge part of his job was to orient new employees to the position and get them up to speed with the norms and the psyche of the institution as fast as possible.
Eberts began doing tours of the building for the staff and for some students of Ohio University until the Asylum moved to a new building in 1993, taking all of the staff and patients with it. Eberts received nothing but requests to go back to the old building and look around, so he took groups of nursing students, social workers and occasionally new Mental Health Center employees.
O’Grady approached Eberts in the early 2010s about collaborating his tours with the History Center, just as Eberts was about to stop doing them. It was just the push he needed to keep going.
“Ever since then, it’s been a whole different trip,” Eberts said. “It’s not students and staff anymore; it’s people from the community. I come into contact with all kinds of beliefs and erroneous background material.”
These incorrect preconceived notions about the asylum and mental health in general is what inspires Eberts to still work with mental health and public education. He works to teach people that mental illness is common and has a lot of intricacies that people need to understand.
“... Teaching people that mental illness is not a case of being haunted, cursed or damned like they used to think,” Eberts said. “We ought to know better by now.”
During the tours, Eberts not only recounts the Asylum’s history and personal anecdotes, but also tells of the history of mental illness treatments, including lobotomies, drugs and other treatments. He has seen firsthand the courage of people with mental illnesses and watched them fight. He is inspired by the change and acceptance that continues as time progresses.
O’Grady is also inspired by the lessons Eberts brings to the tours. He hopes people walk away with a better understanding of the history involving mental health treatment in America as well as the role institutions played.
As for the haunted aspect, both truly feel it is: not in the sense of ghosts in a white sheet running through the halls, but rather for the authentic experience about what the building has seen through the years. The historic stories are haunting enough without the exploitation of death within the asylum.
“It is true that many come to the tour because of some notion of the asylum being haunted,” O’Grady said. “While we cannot produce any ghosts or eerie sounds on command, we find that the reality of the history of mental health treatment is more amazing and believable than a cheap thrill.”
Eberts and O’Grady implore Athens residents to come take a tour and not only learn some valuable history, but destigmatize mental health as a whole.
Photo provided by Southeast Ohio History Center.