Thursday, June 21, 2012

Full Cycle: The Beginning and End of the Harvey County Poor Farm—Part 2

 The second of two articles on the Harvey County Poor Farm by museum director, Deb Hiebert. See June 7, 2012 for Part 1.

Background from  Part 1: 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.  These were the precursors of hospitals and "insane asylums."  Poor farm legislation was 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.

Residency records from the county farm are scarce, due in part to the stigma attached to living there and the disenfranchised  nature of the residents. When county commissioners vistied Superintendent John Hollister in 1916, the newspaper report refers to four "inmates".  Three are listed as "elderly gentlemen having been there for several years," while no further reference is made to the fourth.

Not all of the disadvantaged of Harvey County in the early 1900’s congregated at the poor farm. Many had a rural or town home, but could not earn enough to support themselves and their family. Harvey County provided resources for these folks, also. A September 1918 edition of the Newton Evening Kansan-Republican includes county commission minutes in which not only are the poor farm bills paid (totaling $428.28), but local merchants are reimbursed for “pauper bills” for groceries, clothing and coal (totaling $230.11). These goods went to county residents who could not pay for the supplies themselves.
In addition, the county provided medical services to the county poor residing at the poor farm or their own residences with the annual appointment of a county physician. In 1911, Dr. I.T. Smith was appointed county physician and health officer to provide care to the poor farm residents, with five other physicians from across the county appointed to assist him to “look after the sick paupers in the districts assigned to them.” And when illness, accident or advanced age claimed an indigent resident, the county provided for their burial. County commission notes from July of 1900 lists undertakers C.H. Northfoss, Duff & Duff and L.F. Schumacher and Company to “have charge of the work of burying the pauper dead in the city of Newton,” taking that responsibility in the order so listed (Newton Evening Kansan-Republican). Deceased “paupers” in other cities in Harvey County were taken care of by the undertakers of those cities.
             In 1924, the existing wood frame poor house was demolished and a new brick home was erected, which is today a private residence. The building was 68 feet long by 33 feed wide, with two stories and a half-basement, and cost $18,021.30, plus plumbing ($3,898) and electrical ($425). It provided accommodations for up to 30 “inmates,” some on the ground floor, plus the supervisor and his family.  

The March 12, 1924 Newton Evening Kansan-Republican had much to say on the need for a new facility:  "The house on the farm consists of the original house erected nearly fifty years ago with several additions made in later years and is entirely unsuited to the use for which it is intended.  There are no bedrooms for inmates on the first floor, the house has no toilet facilities, and the fire hazard is very great on account of the general construction of the building, and the fact that all lighting is done with coal oil lamps.  It is almost impossible to care for sick persons, and no inmates can now be taken in at the farm unless they are able to go up and down stairs."  The county was incurring hospital expenses and other bills for care of indigent patients who could have been cared for at the poor farm, if more suitable.  The article concludes, "The building will be adequate for the needs of Harvey County for many years and . . . every one . . . will experience a sense of satisfaction to know that conditions at the county farm are to be improved before Harvey County develops a poor farm scandal such as some of our neighboring county have had in recent years."  That makes me want to go find out more about those scandals! 

Drawing in the Newton Evening Kansan Republican, 12 March 1924.

            But change was on the horizon, and the poor farm would exist under county supervision  for less than another 20 years. The formation of the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930’s combined with the rise of health care institutions to eliminate poor farms and homes across the U.S.  Records show between 14 and 20 residents at the county farm from each year 1924 through 1932, illustrating its’ necessity through that decade. But by 1941, the county commission decided to “no longer maintain it as a refuge” and leased the property for private use (later selling it), thus ending the era of the poor farm in Harvey County.

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