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Fillmore County Poor Farm

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Harmony Area Historical Society
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Fillmore County Poor Farm

Fillmore County Poor Farm, ca. 1900. Used with the permission of Debra J. Richardson.

The Fillmore County Poor Farm, outside the small village of Henrytown, was part of a statewide initiative in the late 1800s to provide housing for poor and elderly people. At its start in 1868 it was considered one of the best of Minnesota’s county poor farms, but it eventually fell victim to a lack of funds and resources.

In 1864, a new Minnesota law required that all counties with a “significant” number of poor and aging people provide them with a home, daily meals, clothing, and medical care. By this time, the county poorhouses in Eastern states—the first organized system of poor relief in the US—had already developed into poor farms. These institutions, the designers of the new system believed, would generate enough income to cover their own upkeep and perhaps even provide extra money for their counties.

The poor-farm system depended on finding good farmland, and Fillmore County was especially fertile. In 1868, four years after the passage of the Minnesota law requiring counties to provide housing for the poor, the Fillmore County Board settled on a site for a farm. It purchased 386 acres in Amherst and Canton Townships from B. F. Tillotson for $9,000.

Burr Dauchy was hired to build the two-and-a-half-story house in July. The cost was $2,625. A barn and additional outside buildings were constructed. The board also approved $3,000 for the purchase of household furnishings and livestock.

The poor farm was ready for its residents in the fall of 1868, less than a year after planning had begun. Its first superintendent, James H. Tedman, served in the position for two years. In its mention of the farm, the 1882 History of Fillmore County describes it as a well-managed 275-acre parcel of cropland, its main crop being corn, with several horses, cattle and hogs.

Seventeen people called the Fillmore County Poor Farm home by July 1884. This small-sounding population, however, had stressed it beyond its capacity (twelve residents). The Reverend Hastings Hornell Hart, secretary to the State Board of Corrections and Charities, criticized it as being underfunded, dilapidated, and overcrowded only sixteen years after it opened its doors. A statewide study conducted by Hart found that women, men, children, elders, and mentally ill people often roomed together in poor farms, and that Fillmore County’s was no exception. The board’s secretary, H. R. Wells, reported that nine people had shared a badly insulated sixteen-by-sixteen-foot room at the Fillmore County Poor Farm through the winter of 1884–1885.

In general, Hart found that few residents could contribute labor to their farms’ operation, as was originally intended. Larger houses with more bedrooms, bigger community spaces, and modern conveniences were needed. Funds, however, were not easily accessible.

On April 14, 1896, over a decade after Hart’s in-depth and critical report, the Fillmore County Poor Farm’s house was destroyed by fire. The County Board allocated $6,660 for a new house and awarded a contract to builder Ole Ask of Lanesboro.

Ask built a three-story, thirty-room house with a limestone basement. The building had wide hallways, an open staircase, and a walk-up attic with living space. The 1912 History of Fillmore County, Minnesota described the house as “large, sanitary and commodious, steam heated, and furnished with running water and other conveniences. The barns are large and well kept.” Author Edith McClure mentions in More Than a Roof: The Development of Minnesota Poor Farms and Homes for the Aged that it was “a first-class farm…quite a showcase.”

In 1902, the State Board of Corrections and Charities dissolved. A new board was created to continue oversight of poor farms, and Louis G. Foley was hired in 1908 to lead it. Foley approved new regulations for the farms’ management and operation, placing them under stricter state scrutiny. By 1929, a nationwide movement created public demand for changes to the treatment and care of the poor and elderly.

A new federal social security act in 1935 was the death knell for the county poor farms. The act gave assistance to poor and elderly people living in privately owned institutions; as a result, public poor farms lost residents to these newer homes and started to close their doors. By 1950, the Fillmore County Poor Farm was privately owned and used as a single-family home. The same family has owned the property since purchasing it from the county in 1943 in a sealed bid process.

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Biennial Report of the State Board of Corrections and Charities to the Legislature of Minnesota. Vol. 1. Serials collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklin. History of Fillmore County, Minnesota. Vols. I & II. Chicago: H. C. Cooper Jr., 1912.

McClure, Ethel. “An Unlamented Era: County Poor Farms in Minnesota.” Minnesota History 38, no. 8 (December 1961): 365–377.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/38/v38i08p365-377.pdf

——— . More Than a Roof: The Development of Minnesota Poor Farms and Homes for the Aged. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1968.

Neill, Edward D. History of Fillmore County. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Company, 1882.

Related Images

Fillmore County Poor Farm
Fillmore County Poor Farm
Fillmore County Poor Farm
Fillmore County Poor Farm

Turning Point

In 1935 a new federal social security act gives assistance to the poor and elderly living in privately owned institutions. As a result, publicly funded county poor houses begin to close.

Chronology

1864

Minnesota passes a new law that requires all counties with documented high poor populations to provide public homes.

1868

B. F. Tillotson of Amherst Township sells 386 acres to Fillmore County for $9,000.

1868

Burr Dauchy is hired to construct a residence on the Amherst Township acreage to house Fillmore County’s poor and elderly residents.

1868

The Fillmore County Board approves $3,000 for a barn, livestock, furniture, and other items.

1868

James H. Tedman is appointed the poor farm’s first superintendent.

1884

A state study criticizes the Fillmore County Poor Farm as being dilapidated and severely crowded, with seventeen residents.

April 1896

A fire destroys the poor farm’s original house.

1896

The Fillmore County Board contracts Ole Ask of Lanesboro to build a new house for $6,660.

1908

The State Board of Corrections and Charities begins to scrutinize and regulate the county poor farms in Minnesota.

1920

A nationwide movement brings focus to the treatment of poor and elderly citizens; the public demands changes in their housing and care.

1935

The newly created Social Security Act begins to provide benefits to unemployed people and the elderly, reducing demand for poor farms.

1943

The poor farm property is sold in a sealed bid process and becomes a private residence.

2018

The county poor farm continues to be owned and farmed by the same family that purchased it in 1943.