RURAL
HERITAGE


WINTER 1989                                                                                                                                   Vol. 14   No. 4
The Poor Farm Revisited
by Don Darling

 
   Route 70, a part of the Eisenhower
Era interstate highway system, passes
close to Ike's home town of Abilene,
Kansas.  Three miles east of Abilene, it
crosses my boyhood home, the old
Dickinson County poor farm.
   Radio was our escape.  Adults listened to soap operas during the day while they worked.  The evening fare provided needed comedy. "Fred Allen," "Jack Benny," and "Fibber MaGee and Molly" kept us laughing.  Entertaining fantasies were important.
   In the early thirties, Kansas was barren.  Most of the trees had been cleared for farm land.  Overcultivation, minimal rainfall, and high winds created vast dust storms that swept across the endless plains.

Diamond, Blackie, and Herb.

 

Playthings emerged from bits of wire and miscellaneous stuff found lying around in our pre-plastic society.  There was little money to spend for toys. Improvisation became a chal- lenge.  Henry was a whittler.  To my delight, his secret projects produced bows and arrows, boats, and windmills.  I missed Henry when he went insane and was transferred to the asylum in Topeka.

   During kids' programs after school, I had the radio and the enormous common living room all to myself.  Saturday evening was a different matter.  The "Grand Ole Opry" program was well attended at the county farm.  The music, though sometimes mournful, seemed to ease our frustrations.
  Dirty skies and troubled times pre-
vailed.  As the old saying goes, "Things
were so bad even the dogs didn't wag their tails." Jobs were hard to find. The W.P.A. employed able-bodied men.  The less fortunate went to the poor farm.
   The vast farm and the attention of the inmates were a source of entertainment for me.  Perhaps the presence of a child brightened their troubled lives as well.  Often the gloom lifted.  Sunshine alternated with rain and made our crops flourish.  Baby chicks hatched. A bountiful harvest brought both encouragement and hard work.  The county farm was a happy place then.
   My grandfather was hired as superintendent of the poor farm in 1921. Grandpa could read, write, and do basic arithmetic.  Apparently that was enough. His position enabled him to employ my teen-aged parents as resident hired help. Grandpa received $90 a month plus food and quarters.    During the drought of 1934, the dust storms intensified.  Those who went outside to do essential chores wore damp kerchiefs tied around their noses and mouths.  Even in the house the dust was pervasive; dirt settled on everything including the food.  I was a contemporary of Dorothy in The Wizard of Ox.  From the immense concrete house atop the hill, I, too, had seen a cyclone churning away in the distance.   Inmates worked in the large summer gardens, planting, hoeing, and harvesting vegetables.  Others practiced animal husbandry, caring for the horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.  Two retarded brothers, Ray and Lester, were excellent farm hands.  With tobacco juice dribbling down their chins and abysmal dental hygiene, they probably didn't live long, but their lives were productive and satisfying.  All but the most physically and mentally debilitated were able to contribute in some way.  This gave them satisfaction and gained the respect of their peers.
   I was the only child who lived at the county poor farm.  The more intelligent inmates used their creative talents to invent games and make toys for me.  Bill and I made excursions to a large clay bank on the farm.  The clay produced all manner of interesting objects.  Once Bill made a basic electric motor powered by a battery.  He had lost one leg, couldn't use a prosthesis, and hobbled about with crutches.    The cyclone didn't whisk me away to amazing adventures in Oz, but the radio did.  Programs like "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy" and "Jimmy Allen, Aviation Cadet" filled my head with ideas ... Jack treking across the Sahara in search of mysterious treasure ... Jimmy in his high-speed monoplane, roaring down on hostile savages to rescue a threatened heroine.    Herb cared for and worked the horses. Old Diamond (named for the small white diamond in the center of his forehead) and his partner Blackie were an especially intelligent and valuable team of draft horses.  There were no tractors.  Farm implements, even the plows, were horse drawn.  I find this all the more remarkable now since most of our food was grown on the land.
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