Brown County Poor Farm to be demolished

Associated Press
Sunday, February 11, 2001

NEW ULM, MINN. -- For nearly 60 years, the Brown County Poor Farm was a refuge for the county's destitute.

By April 1, it will be gone.

The brick building that housed the elderly who had no family has been slated for demolition. The once-stately residence hall is now a mere shell after vandals tore out walls, broke windows and burned the roof. The yard -- once filled with barns, granaries, livestock and gardens -- has fallen into disrepair in the past 36 years.

But Linda and Norman Weiland can still hear the sounds of laughter, conversations and the chopping of wood. The couple recalled good times as the last to operate the facility.

The Poor Farm provided a home and security in a time before Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Linda said. The residents were on "old-age assistance" with the county providing clothing, room, board and $5 a month. The county owned the 194-acre farm, including livestock and machinery, after the facility was built in the early 1900s.

After 1938, the county rented out the property with the stipulation that the farm's renters care for the residents.

Linda's parents rented it in the 1940s. They oversaw residents' care and operated the farm, and there were others, paid by the county, to help with daily chores.

"They got $30 a month for every man and had to provide them three squares [meals]," Linda said of her parents. "When Norman and I started, we got $65 a month with some counties paying $70."

Like family

While most of the residents were from Brown County, the counties of Sibley, Watonwan and Blue Earth also sent their destitute to the Brown County farm. Between 24 and 27 men lived on the farm at any one time. Early records show that both men and women were sent to the Poor Farm but, after the county rented it out, the majority of residents were men.

Three women once came to the farm when Linda's parents rented it.

"We had no place to put their table when they ate, so we put them in the men's dining room," she said. "When they came in the dining room, the men were gawking at them. This upset the women, so my dad made a screen with piping and cloth so they had some privacy during mealtime."

The residents were like family. Linda and Norman's children called the men "the grandpas." Linda also interacted often with the residents during her youth, taking the men on their one-day-a-week trip to town.

"I would load up the car, take them to town, and the first place they would head was the bar," she said. "They would spend the afternoon there. They couldn't get too drunk just on the $5 they were given but when I had to pick them up, they were quite happy. I was 17. I was so embarrassed."

Most of the residents were farm laborers before moving to the Poor Farm. Although they didn't have to work there, many enjoyed gathering eggs, milking cows or gardening.

Some had special talents. One resident was known for his handmade canes. Another enjoyed playing piano. He often told the group about his performance before the King of Sweden.

"We had a lot of fun," Linda said. "They would go to the river and fish for carp. Norm rigged an old refrigerator as a smokehouse for them. ... But one time one guy turned up the heat in the smokehouse and burnt our new garage down. We were on a party line at the time, and this woman wouldn't hang up so we could call the fire department. We told her we had a fire, but she just said, 'Oh, sure, you have a fire.'"

Fulfilling a need

In its time, the Poor Farm was state-of-the-art.

"When the new building for the poor of the county is completed as was ordered by the commissioners Saturday, Brown County will have the most modern and sanitary poor house in the state," according to one newspaper account at the Brown County Historical Museum.

"The wall will be brick, there will be no wooden joists in any part of the building, the ceiling and floors will be supported by cement bound together with rods and wire -- a process that has been in use for several years in the East and seems to meet all the requirements of a fire-proof building."

That didn't stop vandals just months after the farm closed in 1965.

The county decided to shut down the farm when the Weilands said they wouldn't rent anymore. The couple had asked for a raise but were told an on-call nurse would be required, the Poor Farm would have to meet other state requirements and they would be responsible for the paperwork.

They were building their own home just yards away from the farm when the decision to close was made. Now, from their home, they can see the brick shell slated for destruction. Although the land is likely to be used for housing, it will always remind the Weilands of the special residents they cared for.