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South Texas Living


Wilson County Poor Farm, 1886-1940s




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Gene Maeckel
Historic Moments
July 24, 2013 | 2,711 views | Post a comment

Prior to the development of the federal relief program and public welfare initiatives during the Great Depression, citizens who had little or no financial support were destined to live in abject poverty. During this period, a system was developed to aid these people through means that had evolved from seventeenth century, English Poor Laws. Basically, these efforts resulted in the development of a county institution known as a “poor farm” -- usually found in agricultural areas. These “poor farms” typically provided minimal relief with limited government assistance.

The poor farm provided a means of caring for the impoverished citizens in a removed, agrarian institution. The county poor farm was developed according to the 1869 Texas constitution: article XII, section 26. These farms also provided a place for individuals who had committed petty offences to work off their sentences by providing manual labor.

In 1886, Wilson County purchased 124 acres of land east of Floresville along the old Floresville-Stockdale Road (C.R. 104) for a proposed poor farm site. The Commissioners Court then proceeded to construct the needed facilities to support the farm operations and house the residents. A large home was also constructed for the farm superintendent; it included an expansive meeting room and fireplace. This space was used as the dining area to feed the residents their daily meals. It also served as an assembly place for group events.

The house included three bedrooms for the superintendent’s family living quarters and was built high above ground level with a spacious front porch. With the home situated to take advantage of prevailing, cooling breezes, the porch (adorned with large rawhide chairs) was an area to relax, converse, and visit with other residents, friends, and neighbors.

Additionally, there were four separate cottages built near the large house to serve as living quarters for the farm residents. Two of the cottages were simply, large single rooms, the other two were divided into separate living areas. Additional outdoor structures included barns for the farming equipment and animals.

Water for the site was provided by a hand-dug, rock-lined well located near the superintendent’s house, under two large oak trees. The top of the well was covered with a wooden deck and provided a hoisting mechanism. This mechanism was used to withdraw water by bucket using a rope and pulley system.

The Commissioners Court selected the superintendent for the farm for a term of two years. However, this time could be extended as the situation warranted. The superintendent was paid a base salary with extra money for farm expenses and providing the residents with clothing, food and medical care. He was also responsible for managing the entire farm operation. In addition, the superintendent would hire individuals as needed to assist with the farm work. Another duty of the superintendent was to organize the planting of crops and overall maintenance of the site. He also was responsible for keeping written records of all poor farm activities and meeting with the commissioners on occasion.

The wife of the superintendent also had a vital role in the farm’s operation. Her duties included cooking meals for all residents, washing their clothes, sewing, and repairing their garments. This was all done regularly and often without compensation from the county.

The full-time residents at the farm seldom exceeded eight residents -- the majority of these were usually single gentlemen. The farm did however provide temporary quarters for jail inmates, giving them opportunities to pay off their fines for minor sentences by doing small tasks on the farm. Occasionally, the orphans or abandoned children were taken in for short periods of time until a more suitable permanent residence could be found for them.

Sickness and disabilities were common among the elderly farm inhabitants. Many times, Dr. Archer and his nurse Lena Ullmans would be asked to come from Floresville to treat the ill individuals.

The farm population, being elderly and typically without any known families, had a high death rate. To provide a suitable burial site for these individuals, a cemetery was created near a grove of oak trees. A wrought iron fence enclosed the site to keep the cattle out of the area. No markers were provided for the individual grave except for the nameplate supplied by the funeral undertakers. The county paid for the burial arrangements if no one claimed the body.

Most people in the county knew very little of the farm and its operation, but many of the neighbors developed a close friendship with the residents. They related how at times some of the inhabitants would be seen walking along the Floresville-Stockdale Road. At times, they would be guests in a neighboring home doing odd farm jobs in return for food and lodging. On other occasions, the more able individuals might be transported to Floresville to do tasks for which they were compensated.

The Wilson County Poor Farm existed until the early 1940’s when federal assistance became available to provide the needed help to the homeless and needy. The poor farm was created as a means of economic expediency by the county to care for these people. It was the funding provided by the federal aid at this time that enabled the county to discontinue the farm operation. The poor farm in Wilson County operated quietly with little or no public interaction. It had been established to deal with the problem of the governmental requirement to care for the poor and destitute of the county. When new options became available for their care, the farm became unnecessary. Today, the physical evidence of the structures and cemetery are gone and all that remains are records of the property deed and Commissioners Court minutes in the permanent record files of the county.

The Wilson County Historical Society meets every third Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. in the American Legion Hall in Floresville, 1412 Fourth St. Dues are $20 for individuals, or $30 for couples. Call La Juana Newnam-Leus at 830-393-2166 or visit wilsoncountyhistory.org, also available under Links from http://wilsoncountynews.com. Click on Communities.
 

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