Living History at the Johnson County Poor Farm

This summer, I am working with Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development to create an audio documentary series on their Grow Johnson County initiative, a hunger relief and educational farm initiative. Working on 5 acres of land at the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, the project grows a variety of fruits and vegetables that go directly to local food assistance agencies across the county, which according to Iowa Valley RC&D Food Systems Director Jake Kundert is currently home to over 20,000 food insecure people. 

This is not only a noble and necessary effort, but one with a great deal of historic resonance given where the food is cultivated. The Historic Poor Farm, one of only two such extant institutions in the state of Iowa, is a place imbued with a complicated but hopeful history, and it’s one that I, for one, was completely unaware of before working with Iowa Valley. County Poor Farms were a widespread development in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, growing “out of a larger social movement of the day striving to provide more dignified and humane treatment for the poor and insane” (according to the National Historic Places application filed with the National Park Service in 2014, prepared by Leah Rogers of Tallgrass Archeology, who I had the pleasure of speaking to for this project). Before the advent of poor farms, counties relied on Poorhouses, “tax-supported institutions established to care for dependent persons, who could be defined as paupers, the infirm, vagrants, the insane, and orphans.” Abuses in poorhouses “were widespread and well documented,” resulting in “poor diet,” “grueling” and “dangerous” working conditions. Like modern-day prisons, they were expensive to operate and had no tangible impact in reducing poverty or other negative social conditions in their communities. 

With this in mind, the Poor Farm system is best understood as a progressive development for its time. The goal was to create self-sustaining institutions where inmates could learn skills and feel a sense of purpose and dignity by working the land and providing for their own food and resources through farming. The Johnson County Poor Farm, originally consisting of 160 acres (the current National Historic Site consists of 110), was by the standards of the time quite successful, not only sustaining itself but consistently turning a small profit through its farming operations. For modern Iowans used to a narrow range of monocrop corporate agriculture – namely corn and soybeans – the sheer variety of crops grown and livestock raised on the Poor Farm may prove shocking. In January of 1900, the farm reported inventory of “1400 bushels oats, 2800 bushels corn 15 tons straw, 20 bushels beans, 10 bushels parsnips, 2 barrels sauer kraut, 175 squash, 60 tons coal, 3 “setts harness,” 700 bushels potatoes, 60 tons hay, 30 bushels onions, 350 heads cabbage, 20 bushels turnips, 1-1/2 barrels pickles, 300 oak posts, 23 cords wood, [and] 20 bushels seed corn,” along with livestock consisting of “14 milch cows, 9 two year old steers, 16 spring calves, 22 fat hogs, 9 two year old heifers, 8 heifers, 1 bull, 2 horses, 1 mule, 40 turkeys, 8 ducks, 1 stock hog [and] 500 chickens.” 

The Johnson County Poor Farm report from January 9, 1875, detailing expenditures, inventory, and revenue for 1874.

Times have, of course, changed in all sorts of ways. Our understanding of mental health treatment has significantly evolved, and some of what went on at the Poor Farm would strike us now as horrifying or cruel. The living conditions in the asylum building – which still stands, and can be visited by the public – were extreme, with those deemed “insane” or mentally infirm kept in wooden cells that could become very hot in the summer or very cold in the winter. Restraints, electroshock therapy, and other outdated methods of dealing with poorly understood conditions of mental illness and addiction were employed. As Jake Kundert told me in a recent interview, there is “a lot of historical trauma embedded within the Poor Farm.” Righting those wrongs, by focusing on community, hunger relief, education, and other important initiatives undertaken by Grow Johnson County and other Poor Farm tenants, is a direction the modern Historic Poor Farm has undertaken. 

While we have no doubt come a long way in dealing with mental health, the Poor Farm also forces us to question just how far we have actually progressed in tackling poverty. When I spoke to Jason Grimm, Deputy Director of Iowa Valley RC&D, he told me how much he valued the idea of the Poor Farm offering the underserved a place to live, interact with the land, and develop skills they may not have otherwise have, getting the opportunity to contribute directly to not only their own sustenance, but that of the larger community. Today’s prisons and jails, where so many of our impoverished (and, indeed, mentally ill) end up, are comparatively quite regressive. Giving the population opportunities to “re-engage with the soil,” to grow things themselves, creates a sense of “healing” we so often lack. 

Grow Johnson County, then, is a way to continue and expand upon the most progressive parts of the Poor Farm’s legacy. The wide variety of fruits and vegetables the Poor Farm produces harkens back to Iowa’s pre-monocrop legacy, and clients at local food pantries and kitchens are directly surveyed to find out what the community wants most from the farm. This year’s crops, for instance, include a quarter-acre of Okra and a significant number of watermelons after input from consumers. And Grow Johnson County’s apprenticeship program and volunteer opportunities mean that the legacy of community education continues here as well, and is – at the risk of making a very bad pun – ‘grow’-ing all the time, with new programs to bring school children to the farm and farm education to schools having been successfully piloted last year. The Grow Johnson County project, and the Historic Poor Farm on which it is housed, are reminders, then, that history lives with us and has many lessons to teach – and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to learn some of this myself, and share what I have found through this summer’s internship. 

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