The Strange, Horrifying History of Cherry Research Farm in North Carolina

Cherry Hospital has an unsettling history. It's now the site of a research farm.

Brian Barth

Sweat springs from my brow as I follow biologist Tomas Moreno down narrow aisles of cornstalks to see a rare and expensive piece of agricultural equipment: a greenhouse gas monitoring system that tracks carbon emissions from the soil. It’s a cloudless morning in late August, corn harvest season is here in eastern North Carolina, and the dry, rustling leaves chafe my bare arms. I love a good farm tour, but as idyllic and inspiring as this one is, I can’t shake the eerie vibe that seems to be hovering over the grounds.

Moreno, a soft-spoken Panamanian man, is part of a team of researchers at Cherry Farm, a 2,200-acre facility about an hour outside of Raleigh that is jointly operated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University. It is one of the largest and most important sites in the country for long-term sustainable agriculture research. Among dozens of other projects, Moreno and his colleagues have been comparing emissions from six different cropping systems in hopes of developing cultivation techniques with a lower carbon footprint.

Tomas Moreno in the fields of Cherry Farm.

Following the cables that snake from an air-conditioned trailer at the edge of the corn field, in which an array of sensitive scientific equipment is housed, we approach a tiny plastic dome over the soil where air samples are collected for analysis. We nearly run headfirst into an enormous and sinister-looking spider stretched out on a web between the fading stalks. The hair on my neck suddenly stands on end—and not for the first time in the hour since I arrived.

Cherry Farm, sandwiched between a state penitentiary and a rehab center for paroled drug offenders, strikes me as a desolate spot to conduct sustainable agriculture research. I joke with Moreno that it must be a spooky place to work. I’d be paranoid about who might be lurking in the bushes every time the wind rustles the leaves. He replies that there is more to the story of Cherry Farm than the occasional threat of escaped jailbirds. “You must have heard,” he says, trailing off, his eyes darting about a bit furtively. “Cherry Farm has a strange history.”

For nearly a century, Cherry Farm served a very different purpose: it formed the grounds of Cherry Hospital, a notorious mental institution founded in 1890 as North Carolina’s “Asylum for Colored Insane,” as a historical placard informs me as I leave Moreno to putter through what amounts to a small village of dilapidated buildings on one side of the farm. It was the sole mental institution for African-Americans in the state until the Civil Rights Act came along in 1964 and forced Cherry Hospital (it had been renamed for the former governor R. Gregg Cherry in 1959) to desegregate and start admitting white patients.

While it looks to me like a ghost town—the austere red-brick buildings, many of them with busted windows and weeds growing from the roof, appear long-abandoned—Cherry Hospital operated at the site until last year, when the residents were moved to a new facility up the road. The fields where Moreno now works produced food for the residents of Cherry Hospital, many of whom worked the land as part of their therapy, and generated income for the institution until 1974, when the NC Department of Agriculture assumed ownership of the farm. 

An 1884 report from the asylum’s superintendent bragged about the productivity of what was then a 171-acre enterprise: “80 barrels corn, 6,000 pounds of fodder, 50 bushels of peas, and 3,000 pounds of oats. We now have 37 hogs for butchering and estimate their weight at 4,000 pounds. An accurate account of the vegetables has not been kept, and the value of our kitchen garden can hardly be estimated. The orchard again gave us apples in abundance.”

The farm was expanded as the population of Cherry Hospital grew to over 3,000 individuals. While horticultural therapy would now be considered a progressive form of treatment for mental illness, it’s not clear how therapeutic it actually was for a population only recently removed from slavery—picking cotton was one of the residents’ farm duties, for example. Other forms of “treatment” used at Cherry Hospital—including electroshock therapy and locking troublesome patients in cages (a practice that was not abandoned until 1956)—certainly were not.

Ideas about mental health at the turn of the 20th century were almost as archaic as the attitude toward civil rights at the time. The 1884 superintendent’s report listed “causes of insanity” for the patients that seem absurd in modern times, such as masturbation and “deranged menses.” While conditions were described as crowded, the superintendent saw no need to do anything about it, lest resources be diverted from the white asylums of the state: “It is not…recommend here that steps should be taken for enlarging. The State, at present, has a large burden in providing for the white insane.”

Local rumors that the place is haunted may stem in part from the two cemeteries at the site, where deceased residents of Cherry Hospital were routinely buried without a proper funeral. Hundreds of graves are marked solely with a number that corresponds to the person’s I.D. at the institution, while thousands more unmarked graves were identified in a 2002 archeological study. A local author is currently researching a book on the stories of paranormal activity that have accrued over the years.

To some extent, it seems that the decrepit conditions at Cherry Hospital have extended into modern times. In 2008, the hospital’s federal funding was nearly revoked following the death of a resident under suspicious circumstances. According to news reports, the person, who was suffering from a medical condition, died after being left unattended with nothing to eat for several days. A security camera revealed that negligent hospital staff were “watching TV and playing cards a few feet away” as the patient succumbed to their illness.

One of Cherry Hospital’s most horrifying cases came to a close in 2001 with the death of 93-year old Junius Wilson, a deaf man who had been a resident since he was 17. Wilson was accused of attempted rape in 1925; assumed to be insane because he communicated only in grunts and strange hand gestures, he was locked up at the Asylum for the Colored Insane. The cooked-up rape accusation was finally dropped in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that a social worker realized Wilson was not mentally ill, but merely deaf—he used a unique form of sign language taught to African-Americans in the South historically, which had apparently been misinterpreted as the wild gesturing of a crazy person.

A historical image of Cherry Hospital, year unknown.

Not only was Wilson falsely accused, and essentially left to rot among mentally unstable people for seven decades, he was castrated by Cherry Hospital staff upon admittance—a not uncommon fate for people of color accused of rape at the time.

Wilson’s story made national news when it broke in the early nineties, and a book about his life, Unspeakable, was published in 2007, which doubled as something of an exposé of the egregious conditions suffered by many other men and women at Cherry Hospital over the years.

After being freed from confinement, Wilson, who had no known living family members, was given a small cottage of his own on the grounds of the hospital. He had a yellow bike that he rode around the farm in his later years, and was often seen fishing at the river that ran behind the fields or tending to the dogs that he kept in one of the barns. Despite the horrors of his life, apparently he died in peace. So perhaps there is at least one benevolent ghost lurking in the cornfields here, as Cherry Farm transforms its heinous past into a brighter future.   

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The Strange, Horrifying History of Cherry Research Farm in North Carolina