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.
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
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.
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
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.''
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.