Oregon Trails: “Poor Farms”

By Ron Brown

TALENT, Ore. — For nearly 100 years, Jackson County had some system in place to care for local residents who were not able to care for themselves.

In the days before welfare, Social Security, and private nursing homes, there was what was called the “poor farm.” It doesn’t sound very glamorous, and probably wasn’t, but it may have saved many lives.

The phrase “poor farm” probably conjures images of Oliver Twist and the poor house, but that’s not what the poor farm was really like in Jackson County, and most counties in Oregon for that matter. Starting in the 1880’s, one house in Jacksonville was set up by the county to help care for those down and out, who had no family or friends to care for them.

“From the very beginning they would pay doctors or individuals to house indigent people. And they would get a certain allowance, $4.19 per month, or whatever it was and because they did not want people to be homeless,” says Talent historian Jan Wright.

From the very beginning, the poor farm was a safety net in a society that did not have social security, public welfare or private care facilities; they called them “inmates.”

“The county commissioners would regularly inspect the poor farm, and regularly make sure that the money that they were budgeted for, the poor farm would be used properly. Because sometimes it wasn’t,” says Wright, “Sometimes the owners of the ‘house” where they took care of people would kind of ‘skimp’ on their meals, and not change the sheets very often.”

Finally, in 1907, the county decided to do it themselves, and they bought this property between Phoenix and Talent and built this new facility to become the new “poor farm.”

“It’s called a ‘poor farm’ because they actually raised the fruits and vegetables and the meats that fed the poor,” Wright explains, “and the poor were invited, if they could, to participate in their own food production.”

It was a large, two story building with a ward for beds upstairs and living and cooking facilities downstairs. Everyone ate at a common table, the food they had raised, and in some cases, prepared themselves.

Most were single adults, widows and widowers without children who could not, or would not, care for them. Some were women with children with no husband for support either.

“You had to go through a county judge, or a county official of some kind had to recommend you, or a doctor had to recommend that you go to the poor farm,” says Wright. “And a lot of people resisted it too. It was not a fun thing, and it lacked a lot of status.”

In 1949, the county tore down the big two-story building and built this long masonry building, which was more like a hospital or rest home. And the name was changed to the “county hospital”.

“The doctor would visit them but they didn’t have common meals, and meals were brought to them. And I think they got lonely and sick and you start to see in the paper in the 60’s, people starting to complain about the costs.”

So, by the 1970’s, with the costs going up, the county decided to get out of the long-term care business and turned it over to private nursing homes. And the “poor farm” is now little more than a memory.

According to Todd Kepple at the Klamath County Museum, Klamath County had poor farms at two locations. The first was along Greensprings Drive overlooking Lake Ewauna, in the very early 1900’s. Later, a second was located at the south end of Summers Lane, and operated through the 1930’s. Residents who were able, tended gardens and helped provide food for the facility. He says a later facility, also on Summers Lane, was referred to as the county nursing home.