Thursday, June 7, 2012

Full Cycle: The Beginning and End of the Harvey County Poor Farm - Part 1

 This is the first of a two-part series on the county poor house by guest blogger, Deb Hiebert.  Deb is the Director at the Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives. The article first appeared in a March 2012 edition of “The Newton Kansan,” and since that time research has revealed more clues about the farm.  This article has been modified to include new information.  The June 21 blog will feature Part 2 of the Harvey County Poor Farm.

"I'm old, I'm helpless and feeble;
and the days of my youth have gone by;
and it's over the hill to the poor house,
I must wander alone there to die."

The chorus of Over the Hill to the Poor House, written by famous bluegrass artists Flatt and Scruggs, refers to the by-gone institution of the county poor house or farm. Prior to the creation of the federal Social Security system in the early 1930’s, the care of economically disadvantaged citizens (due to, for example, advanced age, widowhood, single motherhood or injury), as well as those with mental or physical challenges, fell to individual county governments. If the county was well populated, a poor house was established, and these were the precursors of hospitals and “insane asylums.” Poor farm legislation is included in the original state constitution, and most counties offered relief for the poor by the mid-1870’s.

Such was the case in Harvey County. The November 4, 1873 election resulted in $3,000 in bonds being approved to establish a county poor farm. Only $2,000 in bonds were needed to purchase the Macon Township property in August, 1874 through the agency of R.W.P. Muse and R.M. Spivey. Muse and Spivey offered the property for $1,500 if cash was paid, but charged $2,000 if bonds were issued. A wood frame house, constructed in approximately 1875, existed on the property for immediate use by the county.

The original county poor farm house.
 Written on the back of the photo:
 “Harvey County Poor Farm, W. 12th, 1914, John Hollister, Supt.” 
At this point, the poor house was leased to a tenant, who would work the farm for personal profit (or loss) and provide housing, food and care to the residents, commonly referred to across the country as “inmates,” who were expected to help with the farm duties. The challenge in this system was that many of the residents were at the farm due to their inability to support themselves, which led to incidents of forced labor and abuse across the U.S. Fortunately, soon after the Harvey County poor farm was opened, a new system was established in which the county commission would appoint and hire a poor farm superintendent, who was paid to provide care for residents. The superintendent maintained the livestock, gardens and cropland, which were all county property, and any profits from the sale of commodities was returned to the county. 

In 1877, the Harvey County farm was rented to Mr. James Finch for $20, but by 1888, the county apparently owned not only the land and house, but the equipment. A March 1st, 1888 poor farm inventory of property by H.T. Jackson starts with “10 cows” and goes all the way through “5 stone jars, 2 meat barrels and 3 milk cans.” Although the commission may have intended the farm to make a profit, breaking even was more realistic. An 1891 annual statement from the superintendent shows a net profit of $13.41, and is accompanied by the statement that “we are paying expenses.” In 1907, the superintendents’ contract shows an annual payment of $500 for care of the farm, with an additional $264 “for help with the household duties, and in caring for the inmates of said Asylum.” The superintendent and his family were also provided with groceries, fuel and light, and at later dates, telephone service.

(The second article of the series, documenting the transition to a new brick house, will be published  on June 21, 2012) 

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