The big white house on the 200 acres surrounding what is now Coon Rapids High School was a significant part of Anoka County history. This was the county poor farm. It existed from 1898 to 1935. Just as in every other county, Anoka County had paupers in the 1890s and tried hard to find the most effective way to care for them. The Anoka County Poor Farm was the best option for taking care of the poor in that time period.
To better understand the significance of the Anoka County Poor Farm, it is important to see what life on the farm was like. Barbara Peterson, author of A History of the Anoka County Poor Farm, writes an excellent description of this.
The superintendent lived downstairs where there was a large kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom. The residents slept, ate, and passed time on the second floor. They came and left freely through a backdoor leading upstairs to four large bedrooms and a day room. Wood and coal burning heaters heated the house during the winter.
Outside was a large barn, silo, and windmill. Cows, steers, pigs, chickens, and horses were also a part of the poor farm. The crops from the farm included hay, corn, clover, wheat, maple syrup, carrots, radishes, and tomatoes.
A typical day started at six in the morning. The superintendent's wife prepared a huge breakfast for everyone. She also had the responsibility of keeping up the house, doing all the laundry, and caring for the residents. If someone became sick it was her responsibility to care for them, although the county doctor did come if someone was seriously sick (Oppegard).
Peterson continued to tell that the residents seemed content and did light chores if they were physically and mentally able, but most of their time was spent enjoying the weather or playing cards and cribbage. Sunday mornings, the residents were welcome to attend Joyce Church. Holidays were a big celebration on the poor farm (15).
On average there were five to six residents living on the poor farm at a time. Only single people lived on the poor farm and they were usually elderly. Many of the residents were immigrants from other countries (7+).
In general, the Anoka County Poor Farm had better conditions and the residents were happier than other poor farms in the nation. The Anoka Free said on December 4, 1902, "everything has not only been kept up to the standard of perfection, but improvements of all kinds have been madeTheir quarters, though small are neatly kept and scrupulously clean, and the occupants all express themselves as gratified with the excellent treatment accorded them."
On October 16,1923, the Anoka Herald wrote that the horror, starvation, terror, and drab conditions of what the poor farm has become in the minds of many, is not true for the Anoka County Poor Farm.
In many poor houses, the conditions were so dreadful that starvation and death were preferred to living there (McClure, An Unlamented Era 368). McClure's More Than a Roof describes these conditions. The state of Minnesota sent out investigators to observe the conditions of different poor farms in the state. They found that the construction of many houses were questionable. Broken doors, sagging walls, broken furniture, and ragged wallpaper added to the unappealing conditions.
In some cases, the residents were abused physically, mentally, and illegitimate births occurred. All the paupers from that area were crowded in one house. The children and elderly were expected to live with the mentally ill and sick (98 &131).
If Anoka County did not have some form of poor relief the poor would not have survived. The poor farm provided shelter and food for those who would otherwise be homeless (Oppegard). Peterson tells what happened to some of the residents at the Anoka County Poor Farm when they decided to try to make it on there own.
In 1909, a elderly man was missing from the poor farm, after he had mentioned that he was going to Wisconsin. He was later found only a few miles away, frozen to death (9). When another man decided to visit his girl friend in Ham Lake, he was forced to return shortly after he had left. When he came back he was dirty, hungry, and tired (17).
The poor farm was not a perfect system, but the motives and ideas behind it were good. According to Michael Katz, author of In the Shadow of the Poor House, there were four goals for poor farms. The limited money provided for the poor farms prevented these goals from being completely successful.
First, the poor farm was supposed to be a place that could improve the life of poor children. This goal was not effective. These children were forced to live in unsanitary conditions and live with mentally unstable people (22).
Another goal of the poor farm was to change the attitude and character of the poor. This was supposed to be accomplished through having the residents do work around the farm if they were able (22). By doing this, they could experience a sense of pride because they contributed to society. However, many of the residents were unable to work because of their age and mental or physical condition (Oppegard).
Another goal Katz mentioned, was to deter people from applying to the poor farm because of the rules. Doing work around the farm was expected. It was mandatory that children go to school. Alcohol was prohibited, and begging was punished (22).
Keeping the cost of poor relief down was the fourth goal. The cost of a pauper per year under the poor farm system was $20 to $30. Under other systems of poor relief, a pauper cost the government anywhere from $33 to $100 a year (22).
In McClure's book More Than A Roof, she comments on the effectiveness concerning the cost of poor farms. Many boards that decided to use this system of poor relief did so partly because purchasing a farm would be a long term investment. The growth of the population would increase the farm's value. Because the farms grew vegetables and raised cows for milk the farms were generally self-sufficient (22).
On December 4, 1902, the Anoka Free said the Anoka County Poor Farm was not only self-sustaining but also a source of revenue. On October 16, 1923, the Anoka Herald commented that the poor farm produced almost enough to meet its own expenses. In 1922, the revenue from milk alone was almost $1,700.
The poor farm can not be looked at without seeing some negative sides to it. Even though the poor farm was an inexpensive and effective system, there were costs to keeping it running. The Anoka County Poor Farm was able to continue to run despite these expenses, but many smaller counties could not afford to run a farm (McClure, Unlamented Era 372).
Peterson tells many of the expenses the poor farm faced. The original cost of the poor farm was $4,000 (6). A local furniture store provided furniture for $83.73. Animals, farming equipment, and some other goods also had to be supplied (5). In 1907 a telephone line to the poor farm cost $50 (9). The superintendent needed some pay for managing the farm. Matthew Riley, the first superintendent, was paid $30 a month. As time went on, the superintendents were getting $75 to $100 (5+).
An Unlamented Era by McClure, tells how a superintendent was chosen. The county hired a new superintendent based on who was willing to work for the least amount of money (374). That is why the salary changed every time there was a new superintendent.
Many of the negative sides to the Anoka County Poor Farm were caused by the care changing so often. Also, there were very few state standards. Peterson tells the stories of many of the superintendents. Most of them kept the residents content and the farm clean. Frank Hoffman was an exception.
During an inspection, it was noticed that the Anoka County Poor Farm conditions were declining rapidly. There were many needed repairs, fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, and the residents were not well taken care of. Mr. Hoffman decided to resign as a result of the inspection. Soon after, he killed himself along with his wife. It was determined that the Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman had separated, and he could not care for the poor farm on his own (13).
When Frank Talbot was superintendent there were also serious concerns. A resident of the poor farm went to the authorities claiming Mr. Talbot was not providing proper medical aid, he would go after residents with a pitchfork or hammer, and the food provided was insufficient. This case went before a grand jury. The testimonies varied, so he was found innocent. Mr. Talbot was asked to leave immediately (9-10).
The poor farm became more like a nursing home than its intended purpose. Many of the elderly were physically unstable or sick. The poor farm was the only option for them, unless they had family they could turn too. As time went on, it became more obvious that a change would need to take place in poor relief (Oppegard).
In spite of some problems the poor farm system worked well for the turn of the 20th century. However, that system of poor relief would fail in today's society. There are three main reasons for this.
The poor farm was not a specialized system by today's standards. When the poor farm was used, the population was smaller than it is now,and there were not the resources available that there are today. In McClure's An Unlamented Era, she tells of the residents in one poor farm.
"In the women's sitting room slept a man and his wife, a woman eighty-four years old not related to them, and an idiot girl fourteen years old, mute, and helpless." (371)
Today, there would be a different care facility for each kind of situation. There would be a hospital, a nursing home, orphanage, and mental hospital so each person could get the best care possible.
The attitude of the public toward the poor has changed greatly over the years. McClure's An Unlamented Era says, "Poverty was generally considered a disgrace, and while government could not let the citizens die of starvation or exposure, neither was there any effort to make relief palatable or even respectable." (366)
She also points out that very few people were aware the poor farm existed, and visitors usually only came around holidays to perform some kind of entertainment (375). Today, public awareness would be much greater because of the media. Society would work toward improvements because they would have an understanding of the situation.
The advancements that have been made in poor relief over the past 100 years would make it very difficult to go back to the poor farm system. More Than a Roof by McClure describes these changes. As more people needed poor relief during The Great Depression, the government decided to give grants or pensions. Approximately 6,000 people received a monthly pension check for about $9.89. Thousands more received grants.
The Social Security Act was put into effect in 1935. Social Security was available to a person if they were not on old age assistance payments or residents of a public institution. Some people decided to continue to live on a poor farm, but Social Security is the main reason poor farms closed. This is true of the Anoka County Poor Farm (157-165).
There were other forms of poor relief that were tried. At that time some argued that these systems were better. A common practice was contracting with one person in the community to care for all the poor (3). According to Peterson, that is the system Anoka County used before the poor farm existed. Mrs. Starky took care of the poor in her home, until it was observed that the conditions were getting run down. She received $2.50 a week for 16 years (4).
According to Katz, outdoor relief was another form of poor relief. Care was provided in the home of the poor. This system caused the poor to see relief as a right and depend too much on it (17).
Auctioning the poor was the most inhumane form of relief that was practiced. A pauper was given to the person that would take him for the least amount of public money. This did provide a cheap way to care for the poor, but as a result many paupers were sold into abuse. This system was also taken advantage of. A pauper's family would bid for their own family member, and they would all live off the money the state provided (13-20).
"Nationally we tried the poor farm, and nationally we abolished it," (Storla). Anoka County had a poor farm as a way to care for the poor. This was not a perfect system because of the costs, the inconsistency in care, and the lack of set standards. As society has changed over the years, better options for poor relief have developed. Still, the big white house in Anoka County was effective during its existence.
"Anoka's Poor Farm." Anoka Free 4 Dec. 1902. Found in poor farm file at Anoka County Historical Society.
Gillund, Leslie Randels. "Coon Rapids: A Fine City by a Dam Site." City of Coon Rapids, 1984.
Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Book Inc., 1986.
McClure, Ethel. An Unlamented Era: County Poor Farms in Minnesota. Minnesota History. Vol. 38, No. 8, 1963, pg. 365-377.
More Than a Roof: The Development of Minnesota Poor Farms and Homes for the Aged. Ed. Russell W. Fridley. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1968.
Oppegard, Avis, and Smith, Violet. Personal interview. 26 Sept. 2000.
Peterson, Barbara. "A History of the Anoka County Poor Farm." Unpublished essay, 1984.
"Poor Farm." Anoka Herald 16 Oct. 1923. Found in poor farm file at Anoka County Historical Society.
Storla, Ned. Personal interview. 15 Nov. 2000.