The site that was destined to become Willard State Hospital began as a plan to build the first state agricultural college in New York. In 1853 a 440 acre parcel of land was purchased on the shores of one of the finger lakes, and construction began. The very first building was named “The Branch” (later renamed “The Grandview”). The New York State College of Agriculture opened in 1860. Then the American Civil War began, and the site was abandoned.
In 1860, Dr. Sylvester D. Willard was commanded by the state legislature to investigate the conditions of the jails, almshouses, and any other site where insane persons were housed. His final report was dire. Abuse and maltreatment was rampant in the system, which at the time was operated by the local counties. The precedent for establishing state hospitals for the mentally ill had been established with the construction of the Utica Lunatic Asylum (“Old Main”). The Willard Act (1865) authorized creation of asylum to put an end to the poorhouse system. The site for the old agricultural college was used to establish a new facility for the chronically insane. Construction began in 1866, and the first inmates arrived by steamboat on Oct 13 1869. Interestingly, the very first inmate was a deformed woman named Mary Rote. She had been chained, unclothed, and without a bed for the previous 10 years in the Columbia County Almshouse. More individuals who had lived under similar conditions would arrive in the coming months, quickly filling Willard to its 250 bed capacity.
By 1890 There were more than 70 buildings at the site, housing more than 2000 inmates. The facility was closed in 1995, having housed some 54000 inmates.