Poor Farm named Historic Place


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More than 150 years ago, many of the poor and mentally ill of Iowa City called a cluster of white farm buildings on the western edge of town their home. 

While several of the buildings are still standing, many are in desperate need of repair.

Now that the site — the former Johnson County Poor Farm — has received a nod from the National Register of Historic Places, local officials say they will pursue grant money to restore the buildings. And hopefully, they say, tourist interest will follow.

“The is just one of several steps as we look to really enhance the historical significance of that site and enhance the interpretation of that site and enhance the historical buildings that are currently on that site,” Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said. “So that people … can really start to learn about how important that site is.”

Open from the 1850s to the 1970s, the Johnson County Poor Farm was created in 1855 as a place for the poor and mentally ill to live and work.

The farm’s barns, cemetery, and surrounding farmland were included in the recent designation. In 1978, the National Park Service listed the asylum/jail there as an historic site.

This recognition will allow the county to work on restoring the buildings, as well as letting it place interpretive signage around the area in order to help visitors better understand the history.

“Getting the National Register of Historic places as a designation, I think, broadens our opportunity to go after grants for the project,” Neuzil said.

Nearly 20 poor farms nationwide are considered historical landmarks, according to the National Registrar of Historic Places.

Because the farm falls under the jurisdiction of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, it was supervisors’ job to start the nomination process, which began in 2012.

They received funding from the Certified Local Government grant program, which the State Historical Society of Iowa administered. The supervisors used the grant to hire Tallgrass Historians L.C. to conduct research and further carry out the nomination process.

Leah Rodgers of Tallgrass said the process of completing the nomination involved researching the history and construction of the farm and going through any relevant historical information she could find, such as old newspapers and minutes of board meetings throughout the years.

“It’s part of Iowa’s history as to how we handled the very real issues of mental illness and paupers in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Rogers said. “It’s one that a lot of people don’t know about today.”

People living at the farm did not pay rent but instead had to work in exchange for a place to stay.

Because the residents “earned their keep,” the farm was almost entirely self-sufficient, said Kendall Kikuts, who gives tours of the farm as the education and outreach coordinator for the Johnson County Historical Society.

Kikuts said the measures of care and treatment employed at the farm would appear extreme by today’s standards, but during the time of operation, the people were doing what they could for those living there.

Alexandra Drehmen, the executive director and curator for the Johnson County Historical Society, said it was the society’s job to dispel the idea that the farm was a “bad” place.

Through their tours, she said, they try to show that the farm was “needed by the county and by the state as a place for these people to go when in-home care just got way too expensive.”

Because the farm is one of the last Poor Farms in the state, Drehmen said, she hopes the Historical Society can continue to be a part of its future.

“Their vision, and what I would love to see as well, is to create a tourist destination,” she said. “It’s one of very few left in Iowa, and let alone in the United States that’s in this kind of good condition … so we’re really, really lucky to have that in our area.”

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