The History of the Bremer County Poor Farm
To see who lived at the Poor Farm at the time of the censuses taken between 1880-1930, go to Census Data for the Bremer County Poor Farm: 1880 - 1885 ----- 1900 - 1910 ----- 1915 - 1920 ----- 1925 - 1930
The Civil War was the major preoccupation of American society during the third quarter of the 19th century. The war created widows and orphans and it deprived elderly members of families of the support they might have had in their old age, had their sons and grandsons lived or remained able to work. When people fell on hard times and members of their family, friends or members of their church congregations could not provide enough assistance to tide them over, some solution had to be found.
After the close of the Civil War, it became evident that Bremer County was in need of a place for the care of its poor. The costs of maintaining the poor had increased each year from 1860 - $780.75 to 1866 - $1,347.67. In June 1866 the Board of Supervisors resolved to submit to the electors of the county a vote to authorize the purchase of a poor farm within a five-mile radius of the center of the county. The matter was delayed and not dealt with until 1869 when a committee of three found a 240 acre farm for ten dollars an acre. Still nothing progressed until 1872 when the land was surveyed and ground broken. At that time the Board of Supervisors began planning for the building of a residence on the property for the sum of $1,500. All in all – eight years from first proposal to actual building.
The 1880 Federal Census lists W.A. Rice as the Poor Master together with his wife, three children, his nephew, and four adults and three children as residents. The 1885 State census lists the Supervisor, Louis T. Wilson, and his family of four, one hired housekeeper, along with nine residents. By 1900, there were manager Charles J. Hasting, his family of two, three hired girls and two hired men and nineteen residents.
The theory of a Poor Farm, or County Farm as it was later known, was to provide the residents with a way to raise their own food, thus making the farm and residents self-sufficient and lessening the drain on local tax funds. The Bremer County Farm raised field crops, dairy cattle, hogs and poultry, as well as maintaining a very large garden. While few records remain, it appears that the atmosphere at the County Farm was that of a large family, rather than an institution. People could come and go – they were not restricted if they could support themselves. Records show a number of men would come in the fall, after crops were out and leave again in the spring, presumably to work for local farmers. The residents all had jobs appropriate to their age, skills and health. The women helped with the cooking, laundry and gardening, while the men cared for the animals, did the milking and worked in the fields. The farm did its own butchering of the beef, pork and poultry that were used for their food. Part of what was produced was sold and the money used to buy those items that could not be produced on the farm.
There was a commission of three people who reviewed cases before a resident entered the facility. There was a judge, a doctor and a lawyer who would decide if placement at the County Farm was appropriate. Early in the history of the County Farm, the residents appear to be elderly or a person with a health problem such as alcoholism. In examining the census information most of the residents were older adults, with occasional families coming for a period of time. Any orphaned children or those whose parents were unable to care for them were transferred to orphanages or placed with a local family. During early years mentally disabled people were transferred to the Iowa State Hospital in Woodward, Iowa. Persons judged to be mentally ill or violent were transferred to the Iowa State Mental Institution in Independence, Iowa. One young man from Tripoli got in a fight on Thanksgiving Day, sustained a head injury and was placed in Independence for three months when he was released as recovered. In June, 1911, records indicate that $918.40 was paid to the Independence Hospital for care of inmates, $90 to Knoxville Institute for care of inmates and $56.24 was paid to Glenwood Institution for care of inmates, indicating that a number of people were sent out of the county for their care. There are also records indicating county residents were paid for witnessing the need for commitment of a neighbor. One unsubstantiated rumor was that occasionally older men purposely got themselves admitted to Independence to get “out of the house” so they could play cards all day. As with all records, sometimes mistakes occurred and residents were placed in the wrong facility for varying periods of time. In later years, many of the residents were mentally challenged and resided with their “family” for years at the County Farm. Just before the county farm was closed, some individuals with drug dependency problems were placed there, which was a difficult situation.
Heat for the residence was provided by firewood. Each year the County Board of Supervisors would solicit bids from local rural residents for cords of wood. Individuals would be awarded contracts for 5 cords of wood – sometimes the type of wood was specified, with the stipulation no small sticks or branches would be accepted.
Church services were held on a regular basis in the more recent past. A revolving group of local ministers provided weekly services. Also, in later years, the women’s organizations of the local churches organized activities for the residents.
At one time the County Farm had its own small cemetery, but no County Farm records exist of any burials there. There is one notation in the Bremer County Courthouse death records that a Mrs. Mary Steele of the County Farm was buried there. The cemetery no longer exists. Anyone buried in the cemetery may have been moved. Most of the deceased, if there were no relatives, were buried in a special area of the Fremont Cemetery, Fremont Township. However, many of the residents were claimed by their families and buried with other family members.
There were five small cottages built on the County Farm grounds in the 1930’s to accommodate families who were destitute because of the Depression. Two of the houses were eventually moved to Waverly and one remains on site as the home of the caretaker of the property.
The original residence was sold and moved to the junction of Highways 3 & 63. It was intended to be remodeled into a hotel in an area referred to as Balesville, but those plans failed and the now decrepit building was eventually demolished the summer of 2002. The present residential building on the County Farm was built in 1954 of red tile bricks and is four stories high. The new building included a modern kitchen facility for meal preparation, a dining room, a large activity room, a crafts room, a barbershop and a beauty shop, a large walk-in freezer and a private apartment for the manager and his family, as well as sleeping and bathroom facilities for the residents. A very successful Open House celebrated the opening of the facility.
While the county was primarily responsible for the financial care of the residents, there are notations that family members were sometimes responsible for the cost of the care, but circumstances for this were not noted. If it was determined that a resident or family was from another county, that county was billed for their care or the resident was transferred back to that county.
The county home managers tended to stay, once they began their jobs. Henry and Amanda Harms served as Steward and Matron from about 1927 until 1947, at which time, their son-in-law and daughter, Oscar and Florine Heidemann took over the care of the property and residents. Oscar and Florine remained in that position until 1987, a year before the county system was privatized. The Steward and Matron positions were for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The caretakers had to have a variety of skills – butchering the necessary animals, food preservation and preparation, agriculture management of the fields and animals, bookkeeping, plus the care of the residents and the necessary records of arrival, daily health, deaths, etc. Financial reports to the county were always filed each year with the county, detailing the total income and expenses of the farm and its residents for the year. Oscar is particularly proud of the fact that even if a person was reluctant to come to the county home, not one ever chose to leave during his tenure. At Christmas this compassionate husband and wife would make sure that every resident had at least one gift – it might be a shirt or some other article of clothing, but they made sure everyone had a gift to open at Christmas. Later, the local church ladies helped with that project. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s local youth groups and choirs would come to sing Christmas Carols for the residents.
At one time, during the 1930’s, there were at least five families with children living at the farm, and so a school was provided on the grounds. Later, any children of school age were bused to the Tripoli schools.
Health care was provided on a regular basis – early records indicate a doctor would come once a week to provide routine care and checkups for the inmates and also that a doctor would be called in case of an emergency.
As sheltered and safe as the County Farm may have seemed, unfortunate events still occurred. One young boy fell off a manure spreader and his head was run over by the equipment. He survived, saying, “You told me not to get up there”. There were occasional suicides, but those are hard to document. In Dec. 1937, the mother of one of the families living in the small cottages was depressed because Christmas was rapidly approaching, her husband was working out of the county, there was little or no money and four children were under her care. Very early one morning she took a rifle & a shotgun and shot her four children while they were sleeping, then went to a neighboring cottage on the grounds and fired into that cottage, evidently seeking the woman who lived there. From there, she turned to the main building and shot at the night watchman and the Steward of the County Home. Her aim was not accurate and the Steward and night watchman subdued her, bound her with cord and called the authorities. Two of the children died as a result of their wounds and two recovered from their injuries. The absent husband, who had been working on a WPA project at Lansing, Iowa, returned home and took custody of the two remaining children. He had intended to return home that day. She was arrested and tried in Jan. 1938.
In June, 1911, records indicate that $918.40 was paid to the Independence Hospital for care of inmates, $90 to Knoxville Institute for care of inmates and $56.24 was paid to Glenwood Institution for care of inmates, indicating that a number of people were sent out of the county for their care. There are also records indicating county residents were paid for witnessing the need for commitment of their neighbors.
Contributed by Karlyn Armstrong