Reprinted with permission of The Billings Gazette.
BILLINGS GAZETTE                                                             Monday   September 02, 1996  PAGE: 10A 

By LORNA THACKERAY Of the Gazette Staff       

HISTORY ON YOUR DOORSTEP 

Before welfare, county housed and fed the indigent 

   It must have been a very hard thing to ask the county commissioners for a bed at the Poor Farm. Not that it was a bad place. By all accounts Yellowstone County provided the best of facilities and made life as pleasant as possible for the elderly men and women who lived in the two-story brick home overlooking the Yellowstone River on the east bench above Billings.          
  But only the most destitute and the most forsaken could be admitted there. They could have no assets or hope of making a living. Anyone with a family was required by law to turn there first.          
   Some were drunks so ravaged by alcoholism they could no longer take care of themselves. Others were simply so worn down by illness or hard work that all their physical and emotional resources were spent.          
   The Poor Farm represented the last resort. For most it was a place to die. When the time came, they were buried just down the road at Riverside Cemetery on the northeast corner of the farm. Riverside Cemetery is still occasionally used by the county.          
  In July 1913, when the main residential building was only a little over a year old, Billings Gazette reporter B.C. Moore toured the farm, then under the direction of Superintendent F.C. Hellyer and his wife, who was hired as matron. ``At present there are 11 inmates, nine men and two women, and those I saw and talked to were all comfortable and in a contented frame of mind,'' Moore wrote in a lengthy story that appeared in the July 4 issue. ``They are all old people not capable of doing a day's work, yet some of the men were out in the garden hoeing and others were mowing the lawn. The superintendent informed me that he gets quite a little help from them in a small way.''          
   The residents lived on the main floor. According to the detailed newspaper account, a large ward was built on the west end and smaller private rooms were placed on each side of a long hall that extended the length of the building. There were two toilets and baths. The ward contained seven white enameled beds ``furnished with clean sheets, a fine mattress and very good springs. Near the head of the beds are small tables for books and to use in writing, also a chair, not anything fancy, but made for service.''          
   Although the building had indoor plumbing and electricity, the features that probably impressed the residents most were the wide porches overlooking the river - one on the main floor and another right above it on the second floor. The view stretched for miles.          
   The commissioners had set aside about 60 acres for the Poor Farm and virtually every inch was put to use in the county's effort to make it self-sustaining. The 1913 Gazette account said about 25 acres were in alfalfa 20 acres in grain, five in truck garden and two in sweet corn.          
    Hellyer sought permission from the commissioners in 1912 to buy four pigs that he housed in a pen built from extra lumber and scraps from county bridges. The animals ate the kitchen waste and furnished the farm with meat and lard for months. Hellyer, with the help of a hired man, also raised chickens and a few cows. Extra butter and eggs were sold, and horses apparently were boarded on the property. Potatoes, beans, cabbage, cucumbers, squash and a be of about 10, 000 strawberries were set out in the spring of 1913.An orchard of apples and a few cherries had also been planted.          
   The history of the Poor Farm is a little vague. The handling of indigents was not a subject that was written about much in those days, probably because assignment to the Poor Farm to most people meant failure and disgrace.          
   As far back as early territorial days, county commissioners were charged with the care of the poor, according to Frederic R. Veeder, a former director of Montana Social Services, who chronicled the state's history of welfare in a 1938 publication, ``The Development of Montana Poor Law.'' However, he noted, family members able to support poor relations were obligated to do so. Refusal could mean courtordered support of $30 a month.       
   To obtain aid from a county, the indigent had to prove that he or she had lived there at least two months. The commissioners could get the constable to remove indigents who failed to meet that requirement.        In 1876, the Legislature authorized counties to purchase up to 160 acres of land for poor farms. Six years later, the Montana Supreme Court defined as eligible for assistance those who were unable to take care of themselves because of infirmity. The court said counties were not obliged to pay for the poor simply because they were poor. ``If so, the state would readily become a popular place of residence for the healthy, able-bodied, lazy beggars of the world,'' the court said.
 
$2 tax           
   In 1891, the Legislature passed a poll tax of $2 for all males between the ages of 21 and 60 for support of the poor. Minutes of the Yellowstone County Commission occasionally reflect a refund of the $2 for men who had apparently reached the age of 60.       
   It is not clear when the Yellowstone County Poor Farm actually got started. Minutes from the 1910 commissioner meetings reflect various payments for the care of the poor to what appear to be private nursing homes or boarding houses. But they also report bills for services rendered to the Poor Farm. In 1910, the first major structure on the Poor Farm - the detention hospital or ``pest house'' - was put up for bid. In September, the contract was awarded to Piper Construction Co., which bid $6,200 to build a one-story 40-by-60-foot stone and brick building with a full basement. `Pest house'           
      It was to contain wards for both female and male patients, plus an emergency ward that could accommodate 20 patients. Patients under quarantine with any of the contagious diseases that plagued the world in those days were assigned to the hospital. The building is so well built that it remains in use today as a private residence on Yellowstone River Road.       
   The next year, the commissioners decided to seek bids for a two- story residential home on the Poor Farm. The commissioners agreed that they would not spend more than $20,000, and on Sept. 25, 1911, a contract was awarded to Piper Construction for $17,500. The home was to be large enough to accommodate 24 people - about the number of indigent elderly the county had on its charity rolls. The Hellyers were hired to run the place in March 1912 and it was scheduled to open for residents in May. The Hellyers were granted a total salary of $1,200 a year.       
  The Poor Farm apparently operated as such through the 1930s and the Great Depression. A 1934 story in The Gazette noted that CWA (Civil Works Administration) employees hired in one of President Franklin Roosevelt's work programs made sheets and pillow cases for the farm.       
  Sometime in the early 1930s, the county obtained a large Victorian- style house in Broadview for nonpayment of taxes. The house was moved onto the Poor Farm and fitted out as a county hospital, according to Helena Heider, who worked at the Yellowstone County Nursing Home for many years. After several years, the hospital was moved into the brick building that had been the main residence hall at the Poor Farm. The Victorian house became a residence for employees. When registered nurses became scarce in World War II, the hospital was converted to the county nursing home, she said.       
   In 1937, welfare as it was then known underwent a major overhaul with the passage of the federal Social Security Act. The Montana Department of Public Welfare was formed to deal with programs under the act. The role of counties in providing for the poor diminished.       
   When Heider arrived in 1943, the last of the Poor Farm dairy herd, Yellowstone Rose, was still on the place. Other remnants included a horse barn, a cow barn, pig pen, chick brooder house, hen house, storage buildings, slaughterhouse, double garage, a large storm shed for machinery and two root cellars, she said. When the Poor Farm was converted to the county nursing home, some residents stayed, Heider said. Among those who made the transition were several Japanese men.  ``Little deaf-mute Junior created beautiful flowers of paper orange wrappers and gave each freely,'' she said. ``Tonaka loved gardening. Y loved cleaning and window washing.'' 
 
`Hamburger Jack'           
    Police frequently escorted ``Hamburger Jack'' Kelly to the home to sober up and get cleaned up, she said. A lovable woman named ``Tex'' Hayes seemed to have the same problem. Heider said she once landed in the county hospital with broken bones after getting stomped in a local saloon.       
   By 1965, the county had decided that it needed a new nursing home. All the outbuildings were sold for salvage and trucked away, Heider said. When the new home was completed in September 1966, the old brick Poor Farm residence and the Victorian house were demolished.   
  The detention hospital down the road fared better. Heider said she didn't know when the county stopped using it to quarantine patients with communicable diseases, but she knows it was no longer in operation in January 1942. However, it remained fully equipped and ready to go at a moment's notice for some time after she arrived. Occasionally employees at the nursing home would raid the detention hospital for supplies, she said. The detention hospital was sold into private hands in 1948, Heider said. Through the years it has served many purposes - private residence, private nursing home and day-care center.
 
New life           
   It is currently the home of the Ask family, which purchased it in the mid-1970s. The family has been working on it nonstop since then, remodeling and repairing the solid old building into a beautiful home. Every once in a while some one will stop by with a story of a stay in the old hospital. ``It's been fun living there,'' Pamela Ask said. ``It's still as structurally sound as ever. You could not duplicate it for $300,000 today.''
 
Other counties          
   Poor Farms were common throughout the state in its early history. Records indicate that most of the occupants were male and a large portion were foreign born. Much bigger Poor Farm facilities were built in Butte, which had the largest percentage of its population admitted to the Poor Farm, and in Lewis and Clark County, where the Poor Farm had a capacity of 100 as early as 1890.   The Poor Farm at White Sulphur Springs now serves as a bed and breakfast. The Mountain Home, Carbon County's Poor Farm building in Red Lodge, has been owned by John Clark for about 10 years. He intends to restore the old brick building and find a new use for it. The Silver Bow County Poor Farm Hospital still stands in Butte. 

Return to MONTANA                HOME