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County farm falls on hard times

BY KATIE HEINE | MAY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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A little white building on the western edge of Iowa City is home to a whole lot of history. But without funding, the 150-year-old former farm for the poor and mentally ill could deteriorate — and soon.

Though county officials said they'd like to support it, finding money is difficult to do.

The property in question is located on the edge of Coralville and Iowa City near the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center. It's the Johnson County Poor Farm, an area in which poor and mentally ill residents received care and worked the farmland for more than a century.

In its early years, the farm served as a "last resort" for poor and mentally ill people to receive care, said Meagan McCollum, the Johnson County Historical Society education and outreach coordinator. Residents were cured by "hard work and fresh air," she said in describing the common thinking.

The haunting history is still evident in the halls of the abandoned asylum. Illegible words scrawled by an inmate a century ago still mark the wall, and old records show patients were diagnosed with being a "novelist" or "lost love."

The county purchased the 160-acre property in 1855, but it isn't living up to its full potential, officials said.

"[The area] is under-utilized, and so many people are unaware of it," McCollum said.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors adopted a final "vision" for how the land would be used in 2003, and it was brought up for the first time in several years at a recent work session.



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"We wanted to get it back on the radar," said Supervisor Terrence Neuzil.

While officials agreed maintenance was an important first step for promoting the area, finding funds proved to be difficult.

The county is overwhelmed with other projects, such as building a criminal justice center and an ambulance facility. Some suggest that funds could be allocated from the conservation bond or perhaps through a grant from the Historical Society.

While some of the discussion focused on long-term projects, such as utilizing 100 acres of the property to create a rural park, supervisors and Historical Society officials agreed one of the first important steps was to ensure the current structures remain viable.

Two white barns — one a vintage dairy barn — and a silo sit near the historic asylum, which was built in 1861.

"Let's make sure these very prized buildings have at least enough maintenance to not fall down," Neuzil said.

Originally, the county farm housed 31 separate structures, said McCollum. But today, the asylum is the only usable structure. And even it has a gaping hole in the ceiling, various water damage, and deteriorating siding.

"It needs a lot of work," McCollum said.

Once the maintenance is in place, the next step will likely be determining what's needed beyond maintenance to make the site more appealing, said Leigh Ann Randak, Johnson County Historical Society curator.

"It's an important story that needs to be told," she said.


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