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Morning at the Asylum by the Lake in Willard NY

Morning at the Asylum by the Lake in Willard NY


This post is part of a series. To see all the buildings, I visited on the Willard Tour click the links below.

Morning at the Asylum by the Lake in Willard NY


Saturday morning my mother and I took the rare opportunity to visit one of the former largest Insane Asylums in the country right here in the Finger Lakes.

The institution which is now commonly referred to simply as Willard  has gone  by a few names in the past.  Willard officially opened in 1869 as Willard Asylum for the Chronically Insane. By 1877  Willard, at 475 acres (1500 patients) was the largest asylum in the United States.   In 1995 , the then Willard Psychiatric Center closed its doors for treatment, but a portion of the 13-acre campus remained in use by the  New York State Department of Corrections as a rehabilitation facility for inmates..

Obviously, because of the New York State Department of Corrections facility Willard is usually off-limits to the general public. But once a year as a fundraiser the historical society and many volunteers host a 3-hour tour.  The D.O.C treatment facility is an intimating section of the Willard campus, surround by 2 rows of high fence with 4 rows of razor wire, the only thing more intimidating was the threat if at any time during the tour, we wandered off or were caught taking pictures of the D.O.C facility we would be removed from the grounds and could have our cameras taken.  

I grew up quite a distance from Willard, but the legends and rumors still made it out to my little corner of the world. Horror stories of electroshock therapy, ice baths, and tuberculosis were sometimes heard.  While those treatments seem extreme now, they came from a time period were there was a general lack of totally understanding neurological and psychiatric conditions. I am not saying it was a Sandals Resort, but generally the treatments and care of patients at Willard were progressive at the time. Instead of the deplorable conditions and neglect saw at other Asylums and poor houses, Willard provided a protected environment for its patients and encouraged work and self-care.  

 On Oct. 13,1869, a steamboat docked at Willard and several men led a deformed, demented woman named Mary Rote down the gangplank. Mary was the asylum’s first patient. She had been chained for 10 years without a bed and without clothing in a cell in the Columbia County almshouse.

Three more patients, males, arrived at that day, all in chains, one “in what looked like a chicken crate, 3 1/2 feet square. Many of the early patients had been considered difficult and were “quieted” by regular flogging, dousing and “pulleying” (hanging by the thumbs) in the almshouses. Within days of their arrival at the new asylum, however, they were bathed, dressed, fed and, usually, resting quietly on the wards.


My morning at the asylum by the lake in Willard NY was fascinating. I have so much to share! I took well over 300 pictures during the tour. Even though I am only planning on using a fraction of those pictures here, it is still too much for one post. I have  broken down my Willard visit into an individual post for each building,  you can click any of these building links to get started:




Willard Tour: Gilbert House/ Bleak House
Willard Tour: The Morgue

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Saturday 9th of January 2021

The campus also was home to an orphanage.Young girls who were with child were sent to live there. Immigrants with not knowing the english language were sent there. I was a resident there in 2008. I did not believe in ghost till I slept in one of those building.

Jeannette (Patterson) Kuras

Friday 6th of December 2019

I grew up in Upstate Valois, N.Y. I am 54 years old. My mother is 90 years old. She retired from Willard as a Registered Nurse. She worked the graveyard shift. When I was about 8 years old I was bitten by a chipmunk, resulting in 14 rabies shots. Since my Dad was retired military (U.S. Army) I received my shots at the Seneca Army Depot. I accompanied my mom to work for 14 nights in a row, leaving early morning after her shift at Willard ended to go get a daily rabies shot. Being at Willard at such a young age was quite the experience. So all this information is of interest to me. And I would definitely like to read the book ‘The Lives Left Behind’ . It’s something that is on my Christmas wish list, since you could say I got to experience Willard 1st hand during a time it was still in operation. IE: early 1970’s

Nancy Williamson McMillen

Sunday 19th of April 2015

I will be attending this year as I don't have to work. My mom used to work there and we used to live near by. I used to work in housekeeping so it will be interesting to see the biuldings.

Lisa Dunn

Sunday 19th of April 2015

My husbands Great Grandfather lived at Willard.. Last name Brooks

Jennifer Morrisey

Sunday 19th of April 2015

I am also really looking forward to the tour this year myself, there is so much to see!

New York Custodial Asylum for Feeble-Minded Women, at Newark, N.Y. - Home in the Finger Lakes

Thursday 19th of June 2014

[…] my visit to Willard I started thinking the old Newark State School grounds and buildings are very similar, in style and […]

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