Indiana county looks to save poor farm site dating to 1880s
May. 16, 2018
VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — Just outside the city limits and down South Hart Street Road, a ways past Lincoln High School, a stately Victorian building towers over rolling fields.
Some of its windows are broken and the roof is in a state of disrepair, but its red brick walls contain a fascinating history.
May 1 officially kicked off National Historic Preservation Month and here in the Hoosier state, the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology will be featuring Indiana's historic county homes to spread the word about their importance and why they should be preserved.
And one of the buildings featured on its Historic Preservation Month posters is Knox County's own poor farm.
County homes have been known by different names over the years though their missions have always been the same: to care for those who couldn't take care of themselves.
Early efforts in Indiana to care for the sick, elderly, orphaned or poor included a variety of different methods. One of them, local historian Richard Day said, involved auctions.
"When Knox County got started, they'd auction off these 'charges' from the state to various people, then they'd be responsible for taking care of them," he said. "And those private citizens could figure out something for them to do on the farm."
Later efforts included the poor farm, which comprised property purchased by the county commissioners to house the indigent and, Day said, was probably an improvement over the previous system.
Sometimes, according to the state, existing farms were adopted or added onto to fit the use, while other counties built new farms, with the goal being that able-bodied residents of the farm would work to help make it self-supporting.
When Indiana became a state in 1816, the constitution contained a provision for counties to establish poor farms, but nothing was mandated. Then, in 1821, the General Assembly authorized eight commissioners to purchase a farm "for the purpose of it using it to house paupers," according to the Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology.
Around that time, Day said, a log cabin-type structure was built out on what's now Bunker Hill to serve as the poor farm and a modern brick building replaced it in the 1850s. The farm comprised 40 acres, according to the Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology.
"The treatment of the poor wasn't great in the early days," Day said. "There really wasn't any welfare and this was about as good as it got."
The poor farm stayed in that location until 1881, when an arsonist burned down the building. The county purchased the present poor farm site, on what's now South Hart Street Road, shortly after that and started constructing a new building designed by Joseph Frick, an architect out of Evansville.
"Originally, if you looked at it from the top, the plan was for it to be a cross," Day said. "It was supposed to have four wings and a central atrium with a cupola above, but I guess they didn't have money to complete it so they left off the back part. So now you have the front section and two sides, but the rear section was left off."
According to the Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology, the center served as the superintendent's residence and the two wings that extended outward held separate quarters for male and female residence. Unlike the blueprint for other poor farm buildings across the state, the entrances into Knox County's facility are located on the side of the main building.
Frick also placed the kitchen and dining rooms in the basement, and a separate summer kitchen was constructed early in the 20th century. It still remains on the property.
The county's poor farm continued serving as a home for the less fortunate until the 1920s, when it was turned over to Purdue University and converted into a "model farm," an early predecessor to the current extension system.
The poor farm residents were moved into a building on South First Street until 1935, at which point the county decided the city building wasn't working and bought out the lease with Purdue.
But by the 1960s, the farm had sold off most of the acreage and wasn't functioning as a farming operation anymore.
Later, the building was used as office space for KCARC, during which the organization paid for many improvements to the aging structure, including putting in a new heating system, plumbing and electrical, all while leasing it to the county.
But at some point, it became clear that maintenance on such an old building simply wasn't cost-effective if KCARC couldn't take ownership down the road.
Eventually, KCARC let its lease with the county run out, and the building has been abandoned since.
But in 2007, a new hope emerged for the historic, 16-bedroom Victorian building.
Local pastor Sandy Ivers with the group New Hope Center Inc. set her sights on the structure, envisioning a shelter program for women, and approached the county about obtaining the deed to the property.
Seven years later, in June 2014, commissioners were finally able to sign over the deed to Ivers. By then, though, the building wasn't in great shape. It badly needed — and still needs — a new roof, which could cost somewhere around $28,000 to fix, a project to be funded through donations.
And until a new roof goes up, other interior repairs and renovations can't get started.
But Ivers said this month that she's still working toward making the shelter come to fruition.
"Our thing that's holding us back is the roof," she said. "Once we get the roof on, I have several rooms that have been adopted by different people, different churches, then they'll go in and renovate the rooms themselves. So we're still moving forward.
"We need volunteers this summer to mow out there, too."
Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes.com