The JCHPF is a historic site with a complicated past. As we work to revitalize the farm and turn it into a space that will serve the community now, we have made sure that the past informs what we do with the land today. Partnerships with local historians and members of the disability community have been invaluable in our efforts to prioritize historic preservation and ensure that the farm offers equitable access and opportunities for healing.
What is a Poor Farm?
The JCHPF is one of the few remaining examples of the county-run poor farm model that used to be found across the American landscape. These farms were established as a result of the 19th-century social reform movement. Under this model, local governments established farms to care for and house individuals with diverse life experiences. These were working farms, so residents were required to work to the extent of their abilities in exchange for room and board. Various circumstances led to folks finding themselves at Poor Farm institutions in the 19th century. Some examples of individuals who found themselves at the farm include people with low wealth, elderly folks who did not have relatives to care for them, immigrants, widows, orphans, and people with disabilities
The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm
In 1855, Johnson County procured 160 acres of land to establish the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm. The County ran and operated the farm under the poor farm model until 1988. At one time, the farm housed as many as 70 individuals. The farm produced a mix of corn, wheat, hay, oats, potatoes, cabbage, and tobacco, and it also included an orchard, vegetable gardens, and dairy cows. Residents’ work included tending to livestock and maintaining gardens. Farm products were consumed by residents and sold to customers.
The practice of care that took place at the JCHPF in the 1800s–where individuals were required to work–is difficult to grapple with. There are first-hand accounts of individuals who felt at home on the farm. There are also family accounts of relatives who “went off to the Poor Farm” when befallen on hard times because they couldn’t face the shame of being a burden to their families. The asylum and cemetery onsite also raise questions and discomfort and force visitors to reflect on how far we have come in our care for individuals with disabilities and also how far we still have to go.
From Then to Now
Johnson County recognizes the farm’s difficult history. Care has been taken to ensure that current and future uses of the site situate and reckon with this history. Care has also been taken to ensure that the farm meets the needs and desires of the community today.
Learn about the Disability Advisory Committee and their work to ensure that the farm provides equitable access to people with disabilities and opportunities for healing.
Learn more about current efforts to preserve historic buildings and return the land to prairie and local food production.