The County Poor House
Author: Grace Shackman
It doubled as an insane asylum
The County Farm Park, on the east side between Platt and Medford, is devoted to recreation such as jogging and gardening. But once it was the location of the County Poor House. Homeless people of both sexes and all ages lived there. The Poor House sheltered a diverse group of unfortunates: the insane, alcoholic, feeble, indolent, senile, retarded, handicapped, injured, sick, transient, or just down on their luck. Their common denominator was their poverty. Some stayed only for a short time, but others remained until they died. If no relative claimed the body, it was buried on the premises or given to the U-M medical school. Some human bones found in the 1960s when Washtenaw Avenue was being widened were at first believed to be Indian relics until someone figured out that the road extended over the area used for the poor house cemetery.
Poor farms were the nineteenth century solution to poverty. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix, a pioneer in the movement for specialized treatment of the insane, believed that placing people on working farms could make them into contributing members of society and also relieve the public of paying for their care. Most of the people who lived in poor houses were not able to work, however, or if they could, were not very productive. Income from crops raised at the Washtenaw County Poor House helped defray costs, but except for a few years during the Civil War, it was never enough to cover all expenses.
The land for the Washtenaw County Poor House was purchased by the county in 1836 from Revolutionary War veteran Claudius Britton, to comply with an 1830 Michigan law directing each county to build a poor house. The county hired a keeper, always a local person with a farming background, who lived on the premises with a wife who cooked for the residents (or "inmates," as they were called in the official reports).
The farm included orchards of apples, peaches, and pears; livestock (pigs, cattle, sheep, and chickens); and gardens with vegetables and grains. George Campbell, who grew up on nearby Cobblestone Farm, recalled, "I would often see poor farm residents out in the fields pitching hay, always under supervision. The men worked the farm as long as it was done with horse power, but they couldn't manage farm machinery. The women residents helped in the kitchen, setting the tables or peeling potatoes. During the day they would sew." Campbell also remembered that Platt Road used to be known as "Pauper's Alley" and that "Poor House residents used to sneak away and, using a little money they might have gotten from relatives, buy some tobacco at McMillan's store on Packard, where the Sunoco station is now."
Poor houses are usually depicted as bleak, terrible places, but Ann Arborites old enough to remember believe this one was not such a bad place. According to lifelong Ann Arbor resident Arthur Rieff, "it was a lot nicer than old age homes are today. Those who could work, did, and there was a nice visiting room. No one minded going there to live." Edith Staebler Kempf agrees it was a pleasant enough place, especially with all the home-grown food, but says there was enough of a social stigma in being there that she was taught in her childhood to refer to it not as the "poor farm" but as the "county home." She adds, "People of means were ostracized if they let their relatives live there."
After the welfare system arose in the 1930s, the farm changed from a home for poor people to a place for people who needed continual medical care but could not afford it. The farm lands were rented to Ralph McCalla, who continued raising cattle and growing crops until 1960. According to McCalla, "Some of the Poor House residents still helped. They would come down to the barn and feed the livestock just to have something to do."
The County Infirmary, as it was known after 1917, was closed in 1971 after county officials decided it would cost too much to modernize. It was torn down in 1979. For a time, St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital seriously considered building on the site, and doctors' offices were built on the eastern side of Platt in anticipation of this move. After St. Joe's decided to locate elsewhere, debate centered on whether the land should be used for new county buildings or for a park.
After the county commissioners decided to keep the county courthouse in downtown Ann Arbor, the County Parks and Recreation Department went to work creating the County Farm Park. Today the 127-acre park includes a parcours (a jogging-exercise trail patterned after European fitness courses), a woodland trail, a perennial garden complete with native shrubs, Project Grow gardens, and an irrigation system powered by a windmill. All that remains of the poor farm is the barn now used to store maintenance equipment.