East Central Iowa · Museums and History · Roadside Iowa

Johnson County Poor Farm & Asylum

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One of the lonely relics on the grounds of the historic Poor Farm.

Iowa City, IA: Johnson County

It’s 1855 and Iowa is only 12 years old. The young state is seeing a boom of population as the world discovers just how amazing the soil is while the farming culture takes root. It’s also a time that government controlled agencies are coming up with ways to take care of the financially strapped and or “insane”. From the 1860’s to the 1970’s these two classifications were lumped together and worked this farm in Johnson County and others like around Iowa. Becky from the Johnson County Historical Society  showed me around on what would be the hottest day of 2016 thus far.

The Poor Farm was not treated like a dumping ground for the areas underprivileged. Many reasons led folks to these state controlled facilities. Sudden family death or illness, unemployment, or loss of spouse. 31 buildings once stood here and were successful in creating a culture that was completely sustainable. I was glad that the day was so hot, because it made me appreciate just how hard the work would have been for the residents of the poor farm. Working day in and day in hopes that a family member or close friend will someday come by and help you to your new home. Unfortunately for some, the poor farm would be the last place they resided.

The asylum held “inmates” that were held in their cells for the majority of the time and others who were able to assist on the farm as well. The asylum was a long building with several cells all made with the exact same dimensions. Wooden floors, wooden planked walls, and wooden bars. It felt very humid inside but gave some relief to the 100 degree weather outside. Graffiti was etched in many of the cells. Countless hours inside a cell was considered part of the insane’s “treatment” as they battled through who knows what kind of mental anguish. Though Iowa City city limits were just minutes away, this asylum at the poor farm must have truly felt like the middle of nowhere at times. It’s hard to imagine this operating well into the 20th century.

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Poem inside one of the wooden cells at the Johnson County Poor Farm.

The majority of Iowa counties had a poor farm with many of them having an asylum. Johnson County has the last combination still intact. We’ve often said that we write about the splendor in Iowa. Even in a lonely place like this we can see some. Many of these places have either fallen by the wayside due to neglect, redevelopment, or the lack of interest rears its financial side and the building are demolished. Johnson County has kept its poor farm and asylum to educate us. The poor farm was a useful place for people who needed helping hand and guidance. The asylum must remain just to show how far we’ve come. We now have trained professionals that offer therapy to our loved ones, where in the 1800’s the same disability may have seen you placed in an asylum that had you barred in a primitive wooden cell. Supporting historical landmarks like these assists with continuing education for years to come.

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Please take time to visit the Johnson County Historical Society . Much of the information was provided by this great group for our post. Thank you, Becky!

Be sure to read our other article the features more of the Johnson County Historical Society in 24 Hours Inside Iowa River Landing!

Thanks for reading! -Team Goodvin

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