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Life on the Farm

Charlotte Beeson Toon left the old farm near Talent more than 70 years ago, but warm childhood memories linger like summer moths around a porch light.

"I remember turning cartwheels on the lawn and fishing in Bear Creek," said the Fairfield, Calif., resident, who turns 90 in February. "And there was that old Victrola in the gathering room of the Big House I loved to play and dance around.

"It was truly a fun time in my life — such a unique place to grow up. I loved it there, the county farm."

That would be the Jackson County Poor Farm, where many of the county's down-and-out lived beginning in 1907 and into the early 1950s. The Big House was the group home where the residents lived.

Toon was not what was termed an "inmate" back in the day. She was the granddaughter of the farm superintendents who ran the farm for nearly a quarter of a century.

"When I was little and in my early teens, almost every weekend and every summer was spent at the farm," said the 1939 graduate of Medford Senior High School.

"I'd give anything to hear those wonderful stories again from the old people I knew there," she added.

The stories of the poor farm's rich past — in terms of characters and history — come alive in "Taking Care of Grandpa: The Jackson County Poor Farm," part of the Windows in Time history series organized by the Jackson County Library Services and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Historian Jan Wright of Talent, who gave a presentation on the poor farm last week in Medford, will present the program with historic photographs at the Ashland Branch Library beginning at noon Wednesday, Nov. 9.

The farm was located at what is now Southern Oregon Education Service District's Phoenix office, the Jackson County Animal Care facility and the county work-release dormitory.

"Most of those living on the farm were in their 70s, 80s or 90s and had no other place to go," explained Wright, former director of the Talent Historical Society. "A lot of them had been miners or common laborers. They had no family to live with. This was their last resort."

But Wright is quick to observe the farm offered a healthy environment from the ground up.

"This was a self-sustaining farm where they raised all their own fruit and vegetables, their eggs and meat," she said. "They raised cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and butchered what they needed. Nearly everything was produced on the farm.

"It also gave the inmates who could a chance to work and feel like they were contributing."

Although they were called "inmates," it was not considered a pejorative term at the time, she said.

"They were free to come and go," said Wright, who became fascinated with the poor-farm's history after discovering an old box marked "Restricted" while working at the Southern Oregon Historical Society building in Medford about eight years ago. The box contained the register of poor-farm inhabitants.

Many of them lived half a dozen years or more at the poor farm, she said, adding that some died there of old age.

"It wasn't like a hospice of today, where you go in at the last minute," she said.

The local facility was one of countless county poor farms created across the nation in the period before the country created a federalized welfare system.

In Oregon's 1880 census, 80 people were listed as paupers and indigents, including six in Jackson County.

By the late 1880s, Jackson County's housing for the poor was the county hospital in Jacksonville, Wright said, noting the county received numerous complaints about the treatment of the inhabitants.

"It was equivalent of going to the glue factory for a horse," she said of such sites.

After dealing with problems associated with that facility for years, the county in 1907 built the poor farm on a 50-acre parcel which had once been a stage stop about two miles north of Talent. A small cabin from the stagecoach days still stood on the property when Toon was a child.

The poor farm, which included a large residence for the inhabitants, a small hospital for the bed ridden and the superintendent's dwelling, cost about $30,000 to build, according to a Nov. 27, 1910, article in the Mail Tribune.

The annual cost of maintaining it, including the superintendent's salary, was $3,219.79, the paper reported on Jan. 6, 1910.

"The building where the inmates stayed had two stories, with a big lobby in front with the rooms upstairs," Wright said. "It was very much like a family setting with a lot of social contact. They had meals together at a big table. The superintendent ate with the inmates most of the time."

A large wrap-around porch was a gathering place for many of the elder inhabitants, she noted.

William N. Wells, Toon's grandfather, arrived as superintendent at the poor farm around 1914 or 1915. Wells, who had been a poor-farm superintendent in Iowa before moving to the Medford area, died in 1921. His widow and Toon's grandmother, Irene Conger Wells, would serve as superintendent until her retirement in the late 1930s.

"The superintendent and others working there seemed to have this attitude, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' " Wright said, noting they treated the farm inhabitants with respect.

Several of the local Civil War veterans, most of whom served with the Union, spent their last years at the poor farm, she said, referring to the registry. However, Frank Ames, who died at the farm in 1922, was a Confederate soldier.

"I can just imagine some of the stories those veterans got into," Wright said.

She has a photograph of one poor-farm resident named Bill Willetts from Ashland. His left sleeve hangs empty where his left arm would have been.

"He had lived in the hills above Ashland — he always carried his gun," she said, pointing to a rifle carried in his right hand.

One grizzled miner living at the poor farm would go down to nearby Bear Creek nearly every day to pan for gold.

"He kept that dream alive," she said. "He was still looking for the big strike."

Not all the inmates were elderly men. Bertha Guislar, 31, a tuberculosis victim, was admitted with her four children on Jan. 24, 1924, according to the records.

She was sent to a TB hospital late in February of that year. Her children — Emila, 8; John, 6; Fred, 3; and George, 9 months — eventually were taken to an orphanage, Wright said.

Nor were they all blue-collar workers. Gus Newbury, a former Jacksonville teacher, school superintendent and attorney who defended the train-robbing D'Autrement brothers, died on the poor farm in 1955.

"He had no one left who was willing to take care of him," Wright said. "Once they got old and didn't have family or friends to go to, they went to the poor farm."

While most were white, several Chinese residents lived at the farm, including Henry Yum, who lived there for three years before dying in 1919. Chinese immigrant Lee Nyni died there on Nov. 5, 1922.

By the early 1950s, the county decided to erect a new building on the site, renaming it the "county hospital." The old group house was razed in the 1970s.

The new facility operated until 1983. The building now is part of the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

"After it was made into what was called the 'county hospital,' the dynamics of the farm changed," Wright said. "The people living there didn't work anymore. When you went there, it was more like a death sentence."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Irene Wells, shown in the middle of the bottom row, stands with her helpers at the Jackson County Poor Farm. Submitted photo - Submitted photo