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1880 History
The Poor Farm

Asylums for the poor, the disabled and the unfortunate are peculiarly Christian institutions, it has been said, and they become more common with the growth of civilization. None of, the heathen nations, Rome, Greece or Macedon, in their times of, greatest wealth and power, ever established any public institutions for the relief of the destitute, but in this age a State, or even a county of any considerable size or prosperty, would be considered far behind in all the elements of progress unless some provision was made for the care of paupers and other unfortunates.

Keokuk county has been rather remarkably free from abject poverty, but nevertheless has been diligent and generous in providing a place for those too poor to have any other. Care is taken to make the institution adapted to its purposes and to keep it always in good order.

Although the poor of the county have been cared for from the beginning by appropriations made by the county board, it was not till more recent times that a county infirmary was established. Before that time it was the custom to have the paupers boarded in private families, and also to furnish provisions to indigent families. This plan was very expensive, the county frequently being compelled to pay as high as four dollars per week for the board and lodging of a single pauper; also the plan of furnishing provisions was unsatisfactory, as thereby the way was left open for the practice of fraud, many persons in this way frequently receiving aid who were not deserving.

The first step taken toward the establishment of a county infirmary was taken in June, 1866. The county board at that time consisted of one member from each township. There were sixteen members, and notwithstanding the fact that it was too large a body to transact business promptly, and as such a large board would necessarily be made up in part of men unused to business transactions, work was not always transacted in the best of manner, yet the old board of sixteen looked after the interests of the county thoroughly, and many public improvements which to-day reflect credit upon the county and placed it in the front rank in all matters of public enterprise, had their origin in this miniature legislature.

It was at the June session, 1866, that the first official action was taken with reference to the establishment of the infirmary. A committee had been appointed to investigate the propriety of such action, and at the meeting referred to the committee made the following report:

"The committee on care of the poor, to whom the resolution in regard to the purchase of an infirmary was referred, would recommend the propriety of purchasing a farm for this purpose, not to exceed in price the sum of two thousand dollars, and that a vote on this question be submitted to the electors at the next election."

At the January meeting, 1867, a committee was appointed to purchase a farm, which was not to exceed two hundred acres and to be not less than fifty acres. The committee appointed consisted of William Jackson, B. A. Haycock, Samuel West, William McLoud and Lewis Hollingsworth.

This committee did not purchase a farm, but made a selection of two and recommended the purchase of one of them.

In 1868 another committee was appointed to purchase a farm and erect buildings. This committee at a subsequent meeting reported the purchase of a farm, but did not proceed further on account of there being no funds for that purpose. The committee was accordingly discharged.

The farm purchased by the committee was the one belonging to Richard Payton, one mile east of Sigourney, and consisted of two hundred and four acres. The price paid was $3,500.

In 1869, at the January meeting a committee, consisting of Messrs. Jackson, Randall and Morgan, was appointed to erect suitable buildings on the poor farm. At the same meeting it was ordered that the sum of $5,000 be placed at the disposal of said committee.

The business of superintending the erection of the building was left in the charge of Mr. Jackson, who himself drew the plans and specifications and entered upon the erection of the house, which was completed in 1870.

The following report of the committee will afford a good idea of the cost and nature of the building:

"To the Honorable Board of Supervisors, Keokuk County, Iowa:

"Your committee on building county poor-house beg leave to report that the building is now nearly finished and may be occupied at any time, and it may not be considered out of place to briefly review the progress of the work from its commencement.

"Your committee, on the first of February, 1869, made a contract with B. Fixmer for 110,000 brick, to be made on the county farm and delivered at the kiln at $7.50 per thousand.

"They then gave public notice, inviting bids for the erection of the building. A number of bids were presented; the committee being all present, on opening the same, Mr. Blaise's bid was found to be $4,255.50, and being the lowest of all the bids for the work specified, the work was awarded to him, to be completed by the first day of October, 1869. Owing to the extremely wet season and the great amount of heavy material to be hauled before the basement was erected, it was so late in the season that it was thought advisable to suspend the work till spring, and the board authorized that to be done.

‘Your committee met in the spring, before the brick work was commenced, and examined the foundation carefully and found it to be in a good condition, and the contractor has since been faithfully going on with the work.

"Before the June meeting, your committee, on visiting the building, thought it advisable to request the members of the hoard to visit the building and decide on the propriety of finishing the same at once, when it was determined that it would be most judicious to do so, and an appropriation of $2,000 was made for that purpose.

"Your committee requested Mr. Blaise to make out his lowest estimate on the additional work to be done, and if not reasonable it was their intention to call in competition, although it would have occasioned considerable inconvenience and delay in the work.

"Messrs. Jackson and Randall visited the building and pointed out the work to be done, and Mr. Blaise presented his bid in items, amounting to $2,323, to complete the building, grading, etc. On the suggestion of Mr. Randall the bid was accepted on condition that Mr. Blaise should waive all claims for extras, he having previously presented a claim for upwards of $300 for solid partitions in rooms to be adapted to the care of the harmless insane, drain to foundation, to which he was entitled, and also for heavier walls in the foundation, etc.

"The entire cost of the building is as follows:

R. Fixmer, for brick  .............................................................................     $    825.00
Original contract  .................................................................................           255.50
Additional contract  ..............................................................................        2,323.00
                      Total  .................................................................................    $ 7,403.50

Amount paid on first contract  ..............................................................    $ 3,500.00
Amount paid on second contract  ........................................................        2,100.00
                      Total  ..................................................................................    $ 5,600.00

Amount due on first contract  ...............................................................    $    755.50
Amount due on second contract ..........................................................           223.00
                      Total due  ..........................................................................     $   978.50

"We will now make a short statement of the work accomplished:

"The dimensions of the building are 40x50 feet; basement story is seven feet in the clear; the first and second stories are ten feet, and the attic is eight and one-half feet.

"The attic contains a hall four feet wide lengthwise, six rooms and six closets; the second story, ten rooms and seven-foot hall; the first floor contains a seven-foot hall and six rooms. The basement, on the north side, is a cellar, divided into two departments. The cellar and ball floors are laid with six inches of spawls, grouted over with lime mortar and finished with cement, and the walls all plastered. The south side of the basement is finished up for kitchen and dining-room.

"Lightning rods and spouting have been put up and a large cistern constructed; stone steps, front and rear of the building, grade steps and grade walls have been built up in the most substantial manner, and a heavy amount of grading done around the building.

"It is the opinion of your committee that the county will possess a good and substantial building, and fully up to the contract. The contracts and receipts for money paid contractors are herewith submitted, and we would request the board to visit and examine the building.

"All of which is respectfully submitted.

"September 7, 1870.
Committee on building poor-house."

In addition to this building there is another, which was erected in 1878 for use as an insane department. This building was likewise planned by Mr. Jackson, and cost $2,700.

The farm is one of the best in the county, and by reason of its contignity to the county-seat is probably the best selection that could have been made. The house is located on a high piece of ground, immediately east of a creek, and there are the best facilities for drainage. There are one hundred and eighty acres of the farm under cultivation. The fences and out-buildings are in a good state of repair, and a fine young orchard promises in a few years to furnish the household with an abundance of fruit. The number in the household varies from time to tune, there being usually from twenty to thirty. On the completion of the insane department there were ten insane persons brought from the State Asylum.

Medical attendance is provided by the board of supervisors, the contract being allowed to the lowest bidder. Dr. Cook is at present the county physician.

The first superintendent was J. R. Hall. This gentleman had charge of the farm at the time of the completion of the building. When the house was opened for the reception of inmates Mr. Hall was retained, and continued to remain in the position until the beginning of 1879. T. M. Dickey is at present the superintendent. He gives all his time, furnishes all the help, except such as is rendered by the paupers, also all the teams and farming implements required for the cultivation of the farm, receiving for the same seven hundred and seventy-five dollars per annum, with board and house room.

Of the male inmates, few are able to do anything, and several of them require much attention. Of the female inmates, there are several who render considerable assistance. The female inmates, in connection with Mr. Dickey's family, do all the work of the house, including their own cooking, and attending to persons unable to assist themselves. A number of the inmates are wholly or partially insane, and six or seven have fits very frequently. But few of them are physically able to earn a living, and one or two of them will soon cease to be a charge to any one in this world.

The home, with the new additions built, has a capacity for more than the number of present inmates. All the arrangements and plans now in operation would require little, if any, change or additional cost if time number of inmates was largely increased.

The county supervisors and the steward appear to be doing all they can promote the comfort and welfare of the inmates. The inmates are all well clad, and have an abundance of good, plain, substantial and welt-cooked food.

With such facilities for receiving inmates, it is certainly proper that parties requiring aid from the county be removed to that place just as soon as possible, and that in all possible cases the payment of money to out-door paupers should cease. There may be certain eases in which, it may be proper to pay a weekly sum to an individual or family for support, but these cases are very few. This is especially the case when the county-house has facilities for accommodating a much larger number of inmates. Township trustees should see that the poor fund is not depleted by such heavy payments, as in times past, to those outside of the county-house. Economy demands this, and in most cases humanity also, for it cannot but be admitted that persons in want or insane can be much better accommodated on a county farm than in private residences. This is a question that lies with the township trustees, and almost beyond control of the board of supervisors. The funds for the support of the inmates of the county-house have been exhausted largely by the heavy drafts for assistance to persons outside of the county-house; but the abundant crops on the farm will de much toward sustaining the whole concern during the year.

Mr. Dickey keeps his books on a scientific basis, showing cost of every item, as also revenue from each and every source itemized. This is setting a good example, one which might well be followed by many farmers on their own account.

The above statements show that the affairs of the farm are managed with care and good judgment. "Over the hills to the poor-house"is a sad story at best, but there is one far sadder. A painting at the Centennial portrayed an aged Indian squaw left to perish on the plains, while those of her own tribe—her own family and children even, were wending their way out of sight, followed by the despairing, worn out, deserted old woman. Such is life among those who know nothing of charity.

There are at the present time twenty-six inmates, ten of whom are insane and sixteen sane. The following are the names of the insane:

A. Stone, Edward Bocaw, James Hoover, John Doran, Catharine Mills, Mary Horning, Mary Holliday, Margery Beggs, Anne Ruplinger, John Aired. Some of these are harmless and easily managed, while five of them have to be confined, while one, Catharine Mills, must be closely confined in a cell.

The following are the names of the paupers:

John Gamble, George Campbell, Presley Clark, George Miller, Henry Sampson, Frank Long, William Gusler, Mary Priest, Celia Pollock, Maggie Garver, Clovy Seaton, Laura Thralekill, Rosa Wareham, Ida Payton, Adeline Wareham, Mary Bradley.

Among the insane, John Doran was admitted last May; the rest were all brought from the State Asylum, December, 1878.

Among the paupers the following have been admitted during Mr. Dickey's. administration: William Gusler, Ida Payton and George Miller. The others have been inmates for a longer time; some of them for a number of years. Mary Priest and Celia Pollock have been inmates ever since the infirmary was started. The former has traveled life's rugged road three score years, during eight of which she has been totally blind in consequence of having had sore eyes. She was born in Greene county, Ky., and has at tine time a brother living in Mahaska county, and one also, Wm. Priest, in this county. Mrs. Davis, living three-fourths of a mile east of the poor-house, is, we believe, her only living sister. Mary was never married, and previous to coming to the poor-house, on the 30th of September, 1870, had never called on the county for aid, except in one instance. She appears to be in the full possession of her mental faculties, and boasts that while compelled to seek a home in the poor-house, she is still able to pay her own way if furnished with enough knitting to keep her busy. The first year she knit 64 pairs of stockings; has been knitting at the same rate ever since.

Celia Pollock doesn't know when she was born and can't tell anything about her history, consequently was not an easy subject to interview. Nature failed to endow Celia with a mind above that of an idiot, and her powers of speech are such as can only be understood by those familiar with her gibberish. We learn that she is 53 years of age, has a sister living about nine miles southwest of Sigourney, and a brother near Springfield, in this county. She is not capable of doing anything about the house without watching, and may be put down as a harmless simpleton with animal passions fully developed. Celia's case furnished a good illustration of man's inborn depravity, brutes in human form having made her the mother of eight children.

The nativity of the paupers is as follows: Five are natives of Iowa, two were born in Illinois, two in Indiana, one in New York, one in Scotland, one in North Carolina, one in Maryland, one in Pennsylvania, one in Kentucky and one in Germany.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl.

Source: The History of Keokuk County, Iowa, A History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., Illustrated, 1880