RURAL
HERITAGE


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

   One particular woman arrived under a cloud of rumors and innuendoes.  Bessie had a tatto of some sort on an undisclosed part of her anatomy.  I never saw it though I kept my eyes peeled.  The tatto was supposed to signify membership in a secret society of women who used marijuana.  I didn't know what marijuana was then, but it sure sounded fascinating.  Needless to say, my association with Bessie was closely monitored.  Drug and alcohol addiction didn't seem to be a problem at the county farm.

   It's funny, but I don't remember thinking of the county farm as a poor farm. To all of us it was the county farm.
     Vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk, cream, butter, beef, pork, and chicken were all homegrown.  An enormous dinner bell announced meals and called everyone to the house during emergencies.  The long tables heaped with wonderful farm food were all anyone could ask.  Nutrition for the old and poor was not a problem then.  Webster's dictionary defines a poor farm as "A farm maintained at public expense for the support and employment of needy persons." And that's certainly what it was -- a farm for the needy.
   Beehives provided honey, and the bees pollinated the crops.  Though I had been specifically prohibited from going near the bee hives, one day curiosity overcame fear. The price for my investigation was seven bee stings on my face and arms.  Fortunately, I wasn't allergic to bee stings.  There were painful hazards at the county farm.  Since we couldn't eliminate pain, we learned to live with it.

As a cash crop, wheat provided some financial support for the county farm.  Table scraps were recycled through the pigs.  Garbage mixed with sour-mash corn became smelly hog slop.  With agrarian magic this foul brew was transformed into delicious ham. It was an organic farm.  Manure from the animals was spread back on the fields as fertilizer.  Extra livestock were sold at auction barns.  Extra eggs, milk, and cream were sold in town.

    The county farm was partially self- sufficient.  Care for the needy cost less then.  "Goin to the poor farm" wasn't so bad.  Public funds for the poor were efficiently administered.  Visits by the county commissioners assured a close accountability.  Medical attention was provided within reason.  The terminally ill were made as comfortable as possible and allowed to die with dignity.  Even in the midst of the depression, it was a kinder, gentler America. 
    Women inmates helped with the laundry, house cleaning, nursing the disabled, and preparing the food.  Old Mary helped with the laundry, mumbling through life in her homemade dress. 

Flour and chicken-feed sack dresses with colorful patterns were the style then and not just at the county farm.

   Inmates received small allowances for necessities, smoking tobacco, and snuff.  Some inmates visited town now and then,  though most preferred not to.  Shorty was less than 5-feet-tall and slightly retarded.  Sometimes he would ride in with Grandpa and then walk the three miles back home. The county farm was not a prison.    By 1935, my parents were divorced.  When I was seven (1937), Grandfather retired.  For $2,500, he purchased a small (40-acre) farm south of Abilene.  Mother and I moved there with him.  Eventually,  I had a career as a naval officer in submarines and deep sea diving.  Jack Armstrong and Jimmy Allen gave me a sense of adventure. 
      
   On leave from the Navy in 1950,  I returned to Abilene and visited the county farm.  It had been 13 years.  The new staff didn't know me but remembered Grandpa and allowed me to wander around the place. Bill had died.  Shorty was the only one there I knew.  He remembered me and almost cried because I had come to see him.  Apparently no one else ever did.  Soon after my visit,  Shorty was killed by a car as he walked along the road.
   The county farm was discontinued in the early fifties.  Because times were good and social security provided income, there were fewer needy persons to care for.  The house was demolished and the farm sold.  A large private residence now occupies the site.

It's good to reminisce.  The big old house, the land, the animals, and most of all, the people are sacred treasures that I value to this day.  Though I've moved away, I'll not forget the citizens of  Dickinson County, Kansas

By their consciousness and generosity, even in hard times,
they helped the unfortunate and also enriched a little boy's life.

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