DAYS GONE BY: Remembering the Lake County Poor Farm

By Shanna Avery

Lake County Historical Society

Poor farms were a tax-based system which housed and cared for the poor, destitute, disabled and elderly who had no other options. Also called the County Farm, most counties ran poor farms throughout the 1800s until the middle of the 20th century and began to decline when social programs were set in place to provide more safety nets.

The Lake County Poor Farm ran from 1885 until 1942 in Chase Township. The capacious white house still stands on a jagged bank south of U.S. 10 on the west side of Hawkins Road. Old U.S. 10 took a sharp turn south at this location before the road was rerouted, and it was known as the Poor Farm Crossing because of the proximity to the F.&P.M. Railroad.

George Oviatt, the first to homestead this parcel of land, deeded the south half section to the county on Nov. 25, 1885. Throughout the years, more acres were added to the farm.

Though only the house now stands, the county farm once had a sick bay behind the main quarters, various outbuildings and a huge red barn which burned down in the 1970s. A stone wall lined the road and a large screened-in porch served as the entrance to the house. At one time a pair of peacocks strutted about the yard.

Former Chase resident Art Culver recalled the farm usually had 12 to 15 people living there at a time, and they were qualified to stay if they did not know when their next meal would be and were on the verge of starvation.

Other area residents have childhood memories of looming threats of being sent to the Poor Farm if they dared to slack off. The Poor Farm was a real fear to struggling families who lived from payday to payday with what odd jobs were available.

The Joint Documents of the State from 1892 had the following report by R. G. Rogers, Superintendent of the Poor: "The poorhouse and other buildings, located in the township of Chase, are in good condition. Facilities for bathing are bathtubs and pails, and hot and cold water. The buildings are warmed by stoves and ventilated by doors and windows. The treatment of paupers is kind and humane, corporal punishment is strictly forbidden. Food consists of fresh and salt pork, fresh beef, eggs, milk, wheat and corn bread, oatmeal, pie and cake, berries in their season, and vegetables produced on the farm. Inmates are clothed according to the season. The sick are provided with medical attendance and medicines, and nurses day and night when necessary. Our physician is employed by the year. We have a comfortable room for the insane and their treatment is good, no abuse being allowed. Children are sent to the common school [Oliver School] while they remain with us."

Board of supervisor session documents from 1892 through 1926 gave further insight on the County Farm. In 1905, a fiscal report showed a sale of stock on farm for $90, a sale of bass wood logs for $27 and temporary relief returned at $15.

The following expenses were keeper’s salary: $713 for food, $72.80 for clothing, $12.08 for medical expenses, $16.03 for funeral costs, $15 for painting and repairs on house, $28.85 for extra labor, $5.50 for a telephone rental and $28.45 for other miscellaneous expenses.

Some of the farm tools included a lumber wagon, road wagon, set of sleighs, land roller, seed drill, wheel cultivator, corn cultivator, iron harrows, plow, stone boat, root cutter, cutting box, corn sheller, corn cutter, fanning mill, grain cradle, grindstone, iron wedges, scalding tank, two pork barrels, hog hook and corn hook. Other common tools at the farm were three pitch forks, two manure forks, a corn hook, post auger, grub hoes, potato hooks, two bushel baskets, wheel borrow, scythes and snaths, potato shovel, shovels, saws and several axes.

Some of the household goods included: six tables, 20 common chairs, six office chairs, two rocking chairs, two invalid chairs, 13 iron bed steads with springs, 12 bed ticks, one cot, one lounge, three washtubs, three water pales, two boilers, eight chamber buckets, eight stoves, two spittoons, one razor and one pair of handcuffs.

In 1892 the farm produced 10 tons of hay, 4 tons of straw, 125 bushels of wheat, 65 bushels of peas, 35 bushels of corn, 531 bushels of oats, 300 bushels of turnips, 175 bushels of potatoes, 150 heads of cabbage, five bushels of beans, 636 pounds of butter, 196 dozen eggs and three bushel of beats.

The farm had on hand 175 pounds of butter, 18 dozen eggs, 300 pounds of pork, 108 quarts of canned fruit, one and a half of barrels of soft soap, 25 pounds of lard and and half barrel of pickles.

Produce sold was 203 pounds butter for $36.63, 126 eggs for $1.50, 266 pounds pork for $12.63 and 54.5 pounds chicken for $4.34.

A supervisor of the poor represented each township. One case against a couple of supervisors of the poor was presented before the circuit court and recorded In the October, 1905 Board of Supervisors report. A man from Carrieville was judged insane and taken to the Traverse City Asylum on Nov. 9, 1904. The next day, the Supervisor of the Poor transported the man’s wife and children to the County Farm. The wife reported that upon return to her Carrieville residence on Jan. 31, 1905, the door was broken, locks taken off, and windows busted out. Property including livestock, hay, lumber, horse wagon, logging chains, produce, and household goods was pillaged. It was resolved two superintendents of the poor took this property by illegal seizure and were given 30 days for the property to be accounted for or refunded at the amount of $111.85.

Some of the poor farm keepers were as follows: George Oviatt, Festus Edwards, and William J. Munson from 1887 to 1905, William H. Adams from 1905 to 1918, Forest D. Randall and Albert H. Lee from 1919 to 1937 and John DeGreen from 1937 to 1942.

The Reed City Clarion reported in the Feb. 8, 1905 issue, "Mrs. William Munson returned from Coldwater Wednesday, where she went Monday with two small children from the Lake County Poor Farm to the Children's Home."

"Do not forget the prayer meetings at the Lake County Poor Farm Sunday evenings," read the Reed City Clarion on Feb. 15, 1911

Many of the residents who died at the Poor Farm were buried in the public section of the Chase Township Cemetery, which was just down the road. It is estimated more than 70 people were buried in these public lots. No gravestones marked the names of those beneath this barren potter’s field. Cemetery records hardly indicated names, but mostly marked "adult," "child," or "lot full."

In 2010, area residents sought answers on these people who met their end at the County Farm. More than 70 names of those Poor Farm burials were recovered. A dedication took place at this section of the cemetery on Sept. 25, 2010, where a large hand-designed wooden cross was given to bear remembrance to these men, women, and children.

The Poor Farm burials included Alvin Grover, who died at age 100,  and was the oldest man buried in the Cemetery. Other burials were John Andrews, aged 84. Husband and wife, Caleb and Thankful Hobbs who died at the farm eight years apart. Others include Ben Penny, Mina Berzley, Edward Dickerson and Nels Christenson, a Swedish immigrant who was at the Poor Farm more than 10 years. Jos Impson died of epilepsy at age 15, while John Patterson was an elderly man who froze to death Feb. 20, 1898. Horace Avery, a hunter and trapper, died after one day at the Poor Farm on Oct. 20, 1903. Frank O. Johnson was a Swedish immigrant who lived with a local family for two decades but wanted to be at the Poor Farm toward the end of his life. He died Dec. 21, 1927.

The closing statement during the dedication of the Poor Farm burials in 2010, was as follows: "The best way to honor those forgotten inmates of the County Farm is to further appreciate and recognize those living in our world today who may be down-and-out, elderly, and less sought after. Some of them may not be rich and well off, but I am certain we would be made richer and more well off as a person to connect with them and value their lives."