Last year, Corvallis resident Carrie Fairchild came home to find two boxes labeled "cremated remains" on her front porch. She had been expecting the packages. Still, it was a shock to see them. They contained the ashes of long-dead, and nearly forgotten, family members.
"They're my grandmother's brother and sister," Carrie explained. "There were five children in the family, and two of them lived at Fairview Training Center most of their lives. I didn't hear about them until after my grandmother died."
For decades, Fairview Training Center was the state's primary institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. From 1908 to 2000, it was home to more than 10,000 people.
Carrie's great aunt and uncle had Phenylketonuria or PKU, a birth defect that causes an amino acid to build up in the body. It can lead to a number of health problems, including brain damage. Today, babies are routinely tested for PKU, but no one knew what it was at the turn of the 20th century.
"My great grandparents, Irma and Will Shelley were fairly poor. They had a working farm. They had to decide what to do. The doctors told parents, ‘This is best for them. You don't know how to take care of the like these institutions do.’"
The Curtis and Margaret Pearl Shelley entered Fairview in the 1920s as children. They both died there forty years later in the 1960s. By then, nearly everyone that once knew about the siblings were gone too. Like thousands of other institutionalized residents, Curtis and Margaret Pearl’s lives were forgotten.
It was only after some of Carrie’s family members starting sorting through old paperwork that the siblings were rediscovered. But there wasn't much information. There were no pictures of the two, and only a few notes to indicate what had happened to them.
Then in 2007, the state of Oregon publicly listed the names of over 3,500 people that had died in Oregon's institutions, but remains had never been claimed.
"Then I saw something on television about ashes that were left at the State Hospital from people from Fairview and decided to look to see if they were there. I knew nobody knew about them, so probably nobody claimed them either. And their names were on the list, and I got their birth certificates, their death certificates, and submitted [them to the state].”
From 1914 to 1973, the state usually cremated the remains of people who died within its institutions including Oregon State Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital, and Fairview Training Center. Thousands were never claimed by their families.
For decades, the unclaimed remains were held in copper canister urns and stored at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.
Last year, Carrie filed the paperwork to finally retrieve her long-forgotten family members. A few weeks later, the cardboard boxes holding their ashes arrived on her doorstep.
"I wanted the remains to come back to the family. I don't like the thought of them being left there by themselves because they need to be with their family and know that they're not forgotten."
The state still holds thousands of unclaimed remains. They can be searched on the state’s online database.
This story is part of Move to Include, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.