Kaufman County Poor Farm
Kaufman County, Texas

by Kathey Kelley Hunt
Kaufman County Historical Commission


Today there are several dilapidated structures that can be seen from the south side of Texas Highway 34 and FM 1388 in Kaufman County - a place that for nearly 120 years has been known as the county's Poor Farm. This site's history began in 1879 when the county recognized a need for such a place within its jurisdiction. Since that time it has served many purposes to the community and been a home to indigent residents, jail inmates and transients

AERIAL PHOTOGRAPH
(taken in late 1950s)

[labelled with current status]

 


Click on image to enlarge photo


HISTORY

From the earliest county records, soon after Kaufman became a county in 1848, there is documentation that the county assisted with the care of its needy citizens. The system which required the county to care for local paupers was a throwback to the Texas Constitution of 1845 which defined an indigent person as "one who is destitute and helpless as to be dependent for their support upon public charity." And although the state recognized the existence of paupers as citizens the constitution made no provisions to provide care or sustenance for the poor on a state-wide level, placing each pauper within it's vast borders into the hands of each community's charitable organizations. In Texas, according to statute definitions, a person was not considered indigent if there was a family member or any other person legally liable for his support, that was willing and able to support him. However, the Civil War caused the demise of many lucrative charitable organizations willing and able to assist paupers, and brought the number of persons who would qualify as being indigent (according to that definition) to record high numbers, which forced a legislative change to occur.

For the period throughout the Civil War there are records within the Kaufman County Commissioner's Court Minutes of allocating money, staples and cotton cards to families in need. And after the war ended the number of indigent persons within Kaufman County and in the entire state became so high that by 1869 an addendum to the State Constitution, Article XII, Section 26 made the care for the poor the responsibility of each county.

Under the new law Kaufman County officials found themselves delving into their budget to care for the growing pauper population by giving monthly stipends to the indigent and providing shelter in local hotels and boarding houses. But that arrangement proved to be a wasteful endeavor and although it took ten years for them to realize a change was needed, a change was made. In 1879 the Kaufman County Commissioners saw the need to establish a Poor House, or in this case a Poor Farm, and they began scouting for available land for use as such a place.

In 1881 the County of Kaufman purchased from Eliza Jane Thompson, for the sum of $5,104.16, a total of 408.1/3 acres of land located on the Dominico Falcon Survey, which was only 1 1/4 miles from the courthouse square in Kaufman. By November 1883, buildings on the land had been erected to house the residents, guards and farm animals, and operation of the Kaufman County Poor Farm was underway. Proof of this can be found in the county's Commissioner's Court Minutes of November 1883 when T. H. Boaz was paid $40.00 for two months wages as the Manager of the Poor Farm. Also at that time a typical entry placing a resident on the farm would name the person as a pauper and would order them to remain there and support themselves by their own labor until they were either financially able to leave or until they died. A person placed on the farm could only be released from their indenturement through a subsequent court order; and although some persons "escaped" from the poor farm, most lived there the rest of their lives, seemingly content to do so. There are some orders found in the county records where lazy and uncooperative inmates were given money and train tickets out of Kaufman, and out of the State of Texas, and ordered never to return.

 

Those persons sent to the Poor Farm were required to work, but there were exceptions. It is a known fact that many people who were in ill health ended up living on the Poor Farm. In the county records, the earliest mention of medical care to the residents of the Poor Farm is noted in 1884, when Dr. Charles R. Fox was allowed $10.00 for medical attention to Rachael Smith, a pauper living there. In 1886 Dr. W. H. Pyle reported to the county commissioners that he had found at that time thirty three people living on the Poor Farm and that to that date they had suffered no epidemics or contagions. He did report that there were a few persons there suffering with chronic diseases, such as Pthysis and Consumption, with the latter causing two deaths since 1883. He had recorded at the time that two persons were suffering from the habits of opium, and that a death had occurred from heart disease, but that most of the infirm residing at the Poor Farm suffered from broken down constitutions, or general lack of health. He diligently wrote to the commissioners in a report: "I have done what is in my power to mitigate the sufferings of these unfortunates-and smooth their pathway to the tomb."

CEMETERY


Kaufman County Poor Farm Graveyard

Some of the residents of the Poor Farm were in bad health and remained on the place until they died. From the earliest annals of Kaufman County history there had always been a "place of burial" for transients and persons who died while in jail, and a place where "quarantined" persons were buried away from the populace. It is not known the exact date that this practice began, but in 1871 persons who were victims of a typhoid fever epidemic were ordered buried on "Dr. Snow's place" and that site is now know as the Kaufman County's Indigent Graveyard and is located on the north side of Highway 34 on land that was once a part of the County Poor Farm. That land is still used today as a burial site for indigent dead.

READ THE CEMETERY STORY (with photos & lists)


 
From the beginning the purpose of the Poor Farm was to offer a place where the persons residing there could grow their own food. Farm animals were purchased by the county to do work and to be bred for future slaughter. Farm implements were gathered so the land could be planted as a garden. In 1895 the Poor Farm was ordered to plant 100 acres in corn, 60 acres in wheat, 20 acres in cotton, 10 acres in sorghum to feed the farm's animals and the balance of the land to used as a vegetable garden. However, as early as 1886 the county was paying outside vendors for services to aid the residents of the poor farm. During winter months from 1886-1890 John L Matney, a local restaurant and boarding house owner, and his step-son, George Kelley, who was the county's jailer, were paid to furnish the inmates at the Poor Farm with meals.

By 1889 another demographic change had caused a new development at the Poor Farm. The number of female inmates living there had risen to a number that required the county to employ the first Matron to reside there with her sole purpose being to watch after their needs and protection.

The Kaufman County Poor farm was also used as an Epidemic Camp in 1900, when smallpox hit the county. During this time there were tents erected to house the patients and any of their family members who had been exposed to the disease and tents for guards, who were stationed to regulate the rules of quarantine.

County records in 1898 show improvements to the Poor Farm which added accommodations for the growing number of inmates housed there with the building of a barracks. In 1902 a telephone was added and in 1914 a new barn was constructed. In 1917 a cistern was put on the site an actual Jail was built to house the convicts who worked there, which eliminated the hassle of transporting the convicts to and from the farm each day.

In 1931 the county poor farm was used in the Farm Demonstration Program and placed the acreage set aside for that project under the jurisdiction of the County Agent. The use of the Poor Farm, as such, was continued until the 1960's and the first division of the original site came in 1972 when 57 acres were sold for $143.00.00

  Today the Poor Farm and what is left of the original buildings is leased by the Kaufman County Historical Commission.

Plans are underway to turn it into a farm museum, with walking tours and historical living demonstrations. 

The original farm acreage now contains several official County buildings where fields were once planted. To the north of the farm is the County Livestock Pavilion and Fairgrounds, with the Kaufman County Sheriffs Offices and Jail to the northeast and the County Appraisal District Office and Kaufman County Library to the east.

 


HISTORICAL MARKER
In March 1998, during Kaufman County's Sesquicentennial celebration, a Texas State Historical Marker was erected on the Poor Farm site by the Kaufman County Historical Commission.

The marker is on Highway 34 and it reads:

"As did many Texas counties of the era, Kaufman County created a Poor farm in 1883 in order to provide the indigent residents and families of the area with food, shelter and medicine. This work program replaced earlier relief efforts. All able-bodied persons were required to work, including resident guards and county inmates convicted of minor crimes who were originally brought from the jail daily for labor; by 1893 they were housed on the farm. In the 1930's the farm was used to demonstrate new agricultural techniques. Usually filled to capacity, the farm operated until the 1970's. By 1997 only a cemetery and a few buildings remained."

Bibliography:
Kaufman County Paupers and the Poor Farm; Dr. Horace P. Flatt
Kaufman County Commissioner's Court Minutes 1879-1989
Personal files of K K Hunt
Kaufman County Death Record (abstractions courtesy of Linda Feagin Harwell)


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