BY MARIDETH SISCO
Quill Staff Writer
“The county sent a lot of people down there. Everybody that nobody
they ended up down there," said Joe Aid, describing the Howell
County Poor Farm.
Aid, West Plains, who is known for his collection of
pictures and memorabilia, said he has no pictures of the Poor Farm.
"I can't even remember seeing any," he said.
Doing research for the story brought back scenes from
childhood with any grandmother admonishing her children about their
spending habits, "Be careful, or you'll end up in the poor
farm." or, commenting on people who used to live near us, I don't
know what happened to them. They may have had to go to the poor
child, it had the feeling of fairy tale monsters or being threatened by
boogey man. Nobody would
really do that to someone, would they?
But of course they would, and did. People with no
place to go had to go somewhere.
In Howell County, they often went to a place
officially called the county welfare farm.
For some, it was a place to work off a court fine in
Depression days when cash was harder to come by than 30 days’ time.
For others, it was better than anything they had had
out on their own.
For many, it was the end of the line, as they lived
out their lives and died, with nowhere to go, and no one -to notify when
they were gone.
Just over the lip of a grassy rise from the buildings
that still stand on the old welfare home property, the county cemetery
sits inside a curve on Howell Co. Rd. 868, about six miles southeast of
It is a quiet, peaceful place these days, shaded by a
large oak tree and several pines. The wind whispers quietly in the
leaves and needles, sounding
years after the farm was sold in 1955, the cemetery was forgotten and
allowed to grow up in brush and briars. Recently, the county commissioners
ordered it cleared and cleaned up so it could be mowed.
clearing revealed a pathetic little scattered grouping of tombstones,
all alike, except for the names. Even some of those are identical, with
five stones sharing the name "unknown." Only 26 of the graves
are marked. The rest were apparently marked at an earlier time with
wooden markers, now long gone. The only marks now are the slight mounds
and depressions of identical
dimensions, in columns and
Seen in the late afternoon, when shadows are long and
help define the contours of the land, the cemetery is apparently full,
"At one time there was about 60 or 70 people
there at the farm, in the late '30s and early '40s," said John Gid
Morrision, who served as Howell County
while the farm was still open and who now lives on a farm just down the
road, within sight of the cemetery. "The cemetery was for people
who lived there at the farm and people who didn't
have anywhere else to be buried."
was a man who is listed in county records as a "white male, about
30, supposed to be killed by a train." The record is dated June,
1936, when countless men fitting that description were traveling the
country by rail, incognito, looking for work and survival.
Another, recalled by long time West Plains resident
Dail Allen, was a reputed "bootlegger" during prohibition
"I remember they caught a bootlegger, he put up
a fight and they killed him. They buried him down there," Allen
said. "I always think of that when I drive by there. I remember
they took him to that undertaker's parlor down next to where the library
is now. Me and another kid went down there and looked at him. It was
kind of a big event in those days. The town was a lot smaller
A volume of county records listing activities at the
farm between 1927 and 1946 show at least 31 persons as having been buried at the cemetery. None of the names listed correspond
with the names on the stones.
A long afternoon spent in the vault where county
records are kept revealed
at once too little and too much about the farm's former residents.
A woman named America lived at the farm for five
years before dying on July 4, 1936.
The body of a man who was buried at the cemetery in
1936 was exhumed and moved to Illinois to be near relatives in 1950.
John T. Matthews, who lived at the farm from 1922 to
1936, signed an affidavit overriding his relatives wishes to claim his body when he died, electing to buried at the farm,
near his friends.
Many records after 1939 ended with "Released.
Got old age pension." According to documents filed with the
patient records, the old age pension
at that time amounted to about $25 a month - not much, but enough to get
off the farm.
Other records are more pathetic.
"E.S., April through June, had a baby here."
"W.F. Stevens, 68, here a few hours and died. Relatives not none of."
And repeated too often, "No relatives. No one to notify."
They were the county's paupers, explained Buford Skaggs, West Plains,
who was presiding judge of Howell County during many years of the farm's
"Before there was Social Security or the old age
pension, people had nowhere to go, no home, no food," Skaggs said.
"At the farm, they had their own dairy, butchered their own meat,
and raised most of their own food. Those that were able to work got out
and cut wood, hauled hay and brought in a little cash for the county.
They was took good care of. We had people there to cook their meals and
wash their clothes for them," he said. "It wasn't a
self-supporting deal, but it didn't cost too much to run the
And when the people died with nothing, Skaggs
explained, the county would bury them.
"We would buy the caskets a dozen or half dozen
at a time. We had an arrangement with an undertaker. We kept them down
there in a building," he said.
Allen said he remembers the caskets. "I was down
there when I was a kid and I remember going In one of those sheds and saw two or three wooden coffins. That'd kind of
open your eyes," said Allen, who was acquainted with some of the people
who worked at the farm.
Not many had their eyes open to conditions at the
farm, according to one county employee who asked not to be identified.
"It was something no one wanted to talk about or
think about," he said, adding that for the people who lived at the
farm, the best thing that ever happened was when it was closed and sold in 1955.
"They were able to get all those people into nursing homes, where
they could get the proper care."
Patient care at the farm, while the best the county
could offer, wasn't much, the employee said. Prisoners, the mentally
ill, the mentally retarded
and the old and abandoned were all lumped together In one place.
wasn't a good place," he said. "Cold, wet, those old concrete
floors, the cells. It wasn't a place you'd want any of your people to