Until the mid-1950s, people who could not take care of themselves; orphans, the elderly and infirm, epileptics, and alcoholics, often found themselves on a county farm known as a “poor farm.” A superintendent and his family looked after the residents while they earned their keep by farming the land or performing other useful tasks, if able.
These institutions closed when our modern welfare system came into maturity. The land was sold and the buildings were often turned into psychiatric hospitals or homes for the developmentally disabled. Sometimes poorly managed, and not very profitable, those institutions frequently closed their doors and were taken over by vandals and thrill seekers. Sunset Haven, or “Building 207” as it became known, was one such place.
The Jackson County Poor Farm (its original name) has a somewhat unique history. According to Troy Taylor’s Haunted Illinois (2004), it became known as Sunset Haven during the 1940s before it was converted into a nursing home. It was finally closed in 1957 when Southern Illinois University purchased the property to expand its agricultural program. It then became known as the Museum Research Corporation.
During the 1970s, the research corporation tried to locate all the unmarked graves of the dead that had been buried during Sunset Haven’s years as a poor farm. The graves are supposedly located in a grove of trees behind the building.
Sometime later the name was changed again, this time to the “Vivarium Annex,” where, according to Taylor, SIU used it for animal research. The building sat abandoned for over a decade, although the university occasionally staged emergency drills on the property.
The building’s final closure and decay inevitably led to stories of ghosts and other horrors. The atmosphere inside the structure lent itself to rumors of medical experiments gone awry, and visitors seemed to describe Sunset Haven as haunted simply because it appeared haunted. According to Troy Taylor, “stainless steel cages and medical equipment are scattered throughout the place, giving it the ominous feel of some mad scientist’s lair.”
Those who ventured down the long driveway at night for a look inside the notorious building got more than they bargained for. “Rumors about the place get bigger and bigger each year when some brave crowd of teenagers gather up the courage to walk the 2.5 miles all the way down the back drive in absolute darkness,” Courtney Cruse wrote in her high school newspaper, the Terrier Times (October 2005). “The ones who do stay… are almost mesmerized at how many scary artifacts are left in the eerie building.”
In recent years, Sunset Haven became something of a liability as rumors of paranormal activity spread. Between October 25-27, 2013, a crew from Southern Illinois University demolished the building, leaving nothing but a cement foundation.
Geoffrey Ritter wrote an article about the demolition for the Carbondale-based Weekend Times (2-8 November 2013). He interviewed Kevin Bame, SIU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, who said, “It had been vandalized. The windows had been broken out. It was spray painted. The building really wasn’t structurally sound. We couldn’t keep it locked up.”
Bame also said that the university took precaution not to disturb any of the nearly 100 burials on the property. During the 1970s, the University made an effort to locate all the unmarked graves of the dead that had been buried during Sunset Haven’s years as the Jackson County Poor Farm almshouse. The graves are supposedly located in a grove of trees behind the building.
SIU does not seem very interested in memorializing the dead, and plans to simply leave the location as an empty patch of land unless someone comes forward with a restoration plan and the funding to carry it out. “[I] think we would entertain it, but we’re not sure,” Kevin Bame told the Weekend Times. “We’re going to leave it alone.”
The demolition of Sunset Haven was an ignominious end for this allegedly haunted location. Sadly, several such places around Illinois have been demolished or threatened with demolition in recent years, including the former Charles A. Lindbergh School along Shoe Factory Road in late 2007.