Barn Painting: “Yesterday”

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, lyrics from the famous Beatle’s song, came to mind when I thought about the subject of this painting – Whitley County’s historic county farm. Fast forward from “yesterday” to 2017. In today’s climate of massive government entitlement it’s hard to understand how Whitley County solved the problem of the poor, handicapped, and infirm in 1857. The answer – the county farm. The barn and the building on the right side of the painting depict one of these farms, which each Indiana county had by the early 1900s.

Income tax began in 1913, and social security, food stamps, and unemployment benefits began in the 1930s, a result of the Great Depression. Medicare and Medicaid became law in 1965. Social Security cost nearly $900 billion in 2015 while the total of the other programs surpassed a trillion dollars. But long before the advent of income tax and social security, Indiana had a method of taking care of its own. In 1821 Indiana established its first “poor farm” in Knox County and then another in 1831. Over the years, each county built one and each took pride in taking care of its unfortunate citizens, which included destitute families, unwed mothers, orphans, older folks with no relatives to care for them, and the physically and mentally disabled. In addition to a large home and a barn, there was also provision for medical care in an infirmary.

But, and this is the major difference between the county farm and government entitlements, is that living on the county farm was not a free ride. If you were able to work, you had to do chores on the farm – taking care of livestock, tending the crops, or general maintenance. Sorry, Charlie, no free lunch. Importantly, each person who could work on the farm still kept a sense of pride.

When the county decided to start one of these programs, it often bought an existing farm and built a residential home next to it. Then, after hiring a manager – often a husband and wife team –  the county admitted folks. James T. Long owned this Whitley County farm in the 1850s and sold it to the county for this purpose. By 1894 Charles Dimmick and his wife managed the farm, were paid $1,000 annually, and had a five-year contract. Their job was to take care of the business side of the farm and assign work duties to the “inmates,” as historical records refer to the residents.

Now, if one considers the works of Charles Dickens – written about the wretched treatment of the poor in England in the mid-1800s, the same time as this county farm was established, one might envision the farm as a grim Dickensonian labor farm. But, at least in Whitley County’s, that wasn’t the case. An off-again-on-again resident of the poor farm, Rosebud Slim, apparently a homeless man, called the farm, “My home sweet home.” In bad weather, Rosebud knew he could stay at the farm, though he preferred the life of a hobo.

In 1909, William and Mary Miner managed the farm and faced a surprise inspection by the Indiana state accounting office. The farm passed with flying colors: clean, maintained well, and, per the report, “these inmates seem to be comfortably clothed and housed.” In fact, the job description of the manager explicitly stressed humanism: “care for all paupers both current and forthcoming with kindness and humanity”

Another report commented on the care given by the Miners: “Cleanliness and neatness seem to be the rule and nothing is neglected to add to the comfort of the unfortunate beings left in the superintendent’s charge. Mrs. Miner is a kind-hearted woman, as well as a painstaking matron, and all who come in contact with her learn to love her.”

And, to add frosting to the cake, the farm held its own. In 1916, farm expenses totaled $3,447.54, about only $200 short of its income – due to a poor corn harvest. However, expenses rose over the years and, as government programs for the poor and unemployed developed in the 1930s and beyond – shifting responsibility from local to national –  county homes became less important. In 1937, during the Great Depression, this home was renovated to house 70 men and 35 women. But by 1952, only 34 lived in it – 22 men and 12 women.

So, with a decreasing resident population and increasing costs, the county closed the home in 2001. That year only 16 stayed in the home, while expenses rose to $220,000. It didn’t make economic sense to keep it open. The new owner, Bruce Sweetheimer, has converted it into apartments, keeping it functional after 150 years. Many others in Indiana are not and have been demolished, even some built by noted architects. Ft. Wayne’s noted firm, Wing and Mahurin, designed the county home in nearby Kosciusko County, which is still standing. Even though many “poor farms” in Indiana are gone, 14 still serve their original purpose and others, such as this one, have been adapted for another use.

Not much is known about the original barn, but a new one was built in 1899. This barn burned down in 1923, unfortunately destroying a year’s harvest: 50 tons of hay, 350 bushels of wheat, and 100 bushels of oats. The residents had become productive, earning their keep.

Presently Brent and Tami Drew own this farm, having acquired it in 1987. These days Drew Farms produces corn, soybeans, and wheat. Inside this imposing structure are two wood grain bins.  Brent told me, “When we purchased the barn there were 26 milk stanchions in the basement.  We replaced those with hog farrowing crates.  There were also horse stalls in the basement.  The barn is still in use today to store straw and equipment.”

As massive government spending continues, along with our national debt, the question remains: Would a county home and farm, especially one where the residents worked, be more efficiently managed by local government, compared to a national entitlement program? That might be worth considering. Anyway, in 1931 during the bleak days of the Great Depression, one of the county farm’s residents, “Spooner” Elliott, wrote a poem about his life on the farm. Here’s one stanza, which epitomizes the American work ethic.

We are a jolly bunch of pilgrims

As we toil from sun to sun

With the Golden Rule our slogan,

One for all and all for one.

I must acknowledge my sources. Thanks to Jeanette Brown of the Whitley County historical society for two reports published in 2009 in the Post and Mail and more thanks to Kayla Hassett, a grad student at Ball State University, who, in 2013, wrote her thesis on Indiana’s county homes, The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability.