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County Poor Farm served the needy in years gone by

Thu, Jul 3rd, 2003
Posted in Features

The first house on the Poor Farm burned down in 1896. The county immediately rebuilt the house (pictured above), but made it three stories to accommodate nearly 40 residents. The house still remains near Henrytown although the top floor has been removed.

Before the days of nursing homes and the welfare system, counties in Minnesota used county farms, more commonly known as poor farms, to take care of the elderly and down trodden. Located near Henrytown on the Amherst, Canton township line, Fillmore Countys poor farm helped people for almost 75 years. "It was, in a sense, like a rest home is now," states historian Audrey Overland. "It was for people that didnt have a home; that just had no place to go."The 386 acre farm was sold to the county by B.F. Tillotson in 1868. The first house that was built was destroyed by a fire in 1896. The county immediately rebuilt the house, but made it three stories instead of the earlier two-and-a-half stories. Now the house could accommodate almost 40 residents if needed. The male residents and the hired help lived on the second floor, while the female residents and the overseer and his family lived on the first floor. There were two dining rooms on the first floor. One was for the residents and the other for the overseers family and the hired men and women. Each floor had a large bathroom. The rooms for the residents usually held one to two beds but there were also a couple of dormitory-style rooms that held five to six beds. There was even a jail in the basement that held unruly residents for short periods of time. The farm was a diversified one. They grew corn, different types of grain and hay. There were cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and even some sheep at one time. The crops and animals provided income and food to help the farm operate. Over the years, conveniences were added to the farm. A windmill on the hill brought water down so that the house had running water. There was steam heat and even electricity in the house and the barn. An overseer was hired by the county and he and his family resided in the house with the residents. The farm had many overseers during its time. These included: J.H. Tedman, G.R. Cooley, V.P. Nicks, A. French, Avery Herrick, Horace Kingsbury, A.C. Seelve, Ed Erickson, Halvor Johnson, Albert Helgeson, Henry Madson, John Schievel, Leroy Houge, Sigard Sand, Earnie Russell, and Ernest Amdahl. The overseers job was more than just doing bookwork and reporting to the County Commissioners once a month. He also helped male residents bathe, made sure that they had clean clothes, fetched the doctor if needed and did farm chores. His wife would do a share of the cooking, cleaning and sewing. She also helped the female residents that stayed there. Lorraine Solum (formerly Lorraine Houge) of rural Spring Grove, vividly remembers living at the County Farm. Her father Leroy was hired to oversee the farm in January of 1933. He brought with him his wife Clara and only child, Lorraine, then age 8. Though the farms residents were predominantly men, there were occasionally women there also. "Her name was Molly Fraser. She was originally from Arkansas. She didnt have any family in the county either. She was mentally retarded, but she was my playmate. She used to play dolls and house with me. I think she was also one that helped with the mending," Solum recalled fondly. Some residents were limited due to arthritis and other ailments, but most of the residents cleaned their own rooms, washed their own dishes and did various other chores. One man ran the steam heated furnace, another got the mail every day and others helped with garden, yard, and farm work. The residents werent forced to do anything they didnt want to do. They mainly just enjoyed life by lounging on the porch, and playing cards and other various games. Those who had relatives in the area got occasional visits. "We had one blind man named Bumpy", recalls Solum. "He would walk to Henrytown almost every day to visit. I dont know how he did it. They would watch him because sometimes hed go past. I dont know if he counted steps or not."It took more than an overseer and his family to run the farm however. The county also employed two hired men and two hired women. The hired men helped with the overall farm work such as planting and harvesting the crops, and taking care of the animals. The hired women helped with the household chores. This entailed cooking, washing clothes and cleaning. The hired men and women usually got up at around 5:00 a.m. and worked almost all day. They were paid around $15 per month and got one day or evening off and alternating weekends. Borghild Topness of Lanesboro worked for the county farm shortly before its end. "I worked there right out of high school. The people were nice to work for," Topness said.In 1943 the state welfare system came into being, and Fillmore County decided the County Farm was no longer practical. The government paid the residents a selected sum of money which was enough so that most of them could live on their own. Those who were not able to take care of themselves were taken in by families in the community. They stayed with the family until other arrangements could be made for them. Shortly after the farm was shut down, it was purchased by Oscar Garness. The farm is currently owned by Alan Garness.During the years that have passed the farm and house have changed, but there is a silent reminder of the past that sits at the edge of the property. The County Farms cemetery has stood the test of time. Sadly graves have no names on them. They only have numbers. In 1989 Norma Bestor of the Fillmore County Historical Society did extensive research to find the names of the people that were buried there. The list of her findings is kept at the Historical Society. Even though the County Farm has been out of service for more than half a century, stories and pictures of the affectionately nicknamed "Poor Farm" are being passed down from generation to generation. Hopefully these accounts will ensure that the farm is remembered as an important part of Fillmore Countys history.Janette Dragvold can be reached at news@fillmorecountyjournal.com

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