A Glimpse of Life on a County Poor Farm

In the 19th century Iowans were struggling to care for the state’s dependent population. Dependents, often considered poor or mentally ill whose family could not care for them, were cared for by local people who were hired for a small sum. Due to the poor wages and difficulty of the job, caregivers were often inconsistent and unreliable.

Seeing a need for reform, the state of Iowa passed the “Poor Law” in 1847 which created a system of county homes for dependents. The homes, modeled after the almshouses of Elizabethan England, provided, what the county hoped was, more cost-effective treatment for the state’s growing number of dependents. Costs and administrative duties of these facilities fell to each individual county.

First Johnson County Asylum, Iowa City, Iowa 1976.

By 1855, Johnson County had established their first poor farm and asylum. The 160-acre farm was built on the outskirts of Iowa City, with a four-room cabin. In 1859 two long wings were added to the building, one for paupers and another for the mentally insane.

During the day residents would work on the farm, primarily performing dairy production and farming tasks. This system was thought to provide more dignified and humane care for residents who worked on the farm to raise food and cover day-to-day expenses of the facility.

Throughout the last half of the 19th century poor farms were built in counties across the state. Care for the state’s dependents often varied depending on the poor farm. For example, the Clinton County Poor Farm and Insane Asylum was considered well run, compassionate and clean. Others, such as the Boone County Insane Asylum which burned to the ground in 1894, were riddled with disease and poor living conditions.

Iowa City Daily Press, March 13, 1905.

In 1886 Johnson County built a new asylum, thus ending the use of the original Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum. The new facility, built directly east of the original farm, featured three brick buildings, one for administration, a second for paupers and third for the mentally insane.

The new facility served as the county’s main asylum where the residents continued to work the farm. In the 1890s conditions were reported to a local newspaper as being “above the average county institution.” By 1964 a third facility was built on the same site of the second facility, shortly thereafter the 1886 buildings were demolished. This new facility serves as the present care facility for Johnson County’s mentally ill.

While the original Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum was only used for 30 years, its legacy remains on the outskirts of Iowa City where the mentally insane wing and multiple farm buildings still stand. The poor farm is one of the last such properties in the state. The building housed mentally ill residents is complete with the 7’x 7’ wooden cells with barred fronts and narrow horizontal openings through which inmates were given food. The building was heated by a single wood stove in the center of the main hall, in the middle of the wooden cells.

Cells of the first Johnson County Asylum, Iowa City, Iowa 1975.

Behind the building and further into the fields rests the poor farm’s cemetery. It’s widely known that those who died at Johnson County’s poor farm are buried in the field but, typical of the era’s poor farm and asylums, no record of their death or burial can be found.

Most communities have lost the haunting reminders of the early days of mental health care, but Johnson County has preserved the building that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. A larger portion of the historic farm of approximately 110 acres was added to the National Register in 2014.

On December 29, 2015 the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and State Historical Society of Iowa awarded a $17,000 grant for the Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum. This funding comes from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. The grant will allow for the development of an adaptive re-use and rehabilitation action plan for the facility. The Project Grant is one of nearly $100,000 in grants for Iowa’s local historic preservation projects and programs announced last week.

To visit or learn more about the history Iowa’s poor farms and asylums download the Iowa Culture app today.

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