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A home for those in need

In summer 1870, two old and frail strangers walked into Jacksonville, alone and penniless.

Jonathan Davis of Burlington, Iowa, was on his way to see his son in Portland when, somewhere north of Sacramento, he was robbed at gunpoint.

With no money and forced to walk all the way to Oregon, Davis’ ankle became infected. Severe complications set in even before he reached the Siskiyou Mountains. Each throbbing step tested his will and ability to continue.

A few weeks earlier, W.L. Johnson, blind and suffering from a severe cold that filled his lungs with fluid, had also been robbed.

“After taking all the money I had in the world,” he said, “they threw me into the Truckee River, from which, after repeated efforts, I succeeded in escaping.”

Davis somehow made it to Jacksonville, where his leg was amputated. Whether he ever saw his son again isn’t reported.

Johnson was nursed back to health by the county doctor. Where he went after that is also a mystery.

In both cases and in hundreds more, neither man had to pay.

Even before Oregon became a state, Jackson County commissioners awarded a yearly contract to a local doctor, allowing him to run what they called the County Hospital. It was really nothing more than the physician’s office or home.

In addition to medical services for those who had no ability to pay, the doctor would house the sick and those with disabilities, elderly men or women who couldn’t work anymore and had no means of support.

The biggest flaw in the system was when the county’s annual contract was awarded to a different doctor. The helpless men and women living with one doctor were forced to move to the new doctor’s home or office.

The county also instituted a program that gave a modest monthly payment to individuals who had a place to live, but no money for food. It was a plan especially helpful to elderly widows and widowers who didn’t have family to help.

After nearly 60 years, the county decided to take action. In 1907, land north of Talent was purchased, and construction began on an actual hospital building.

“The paupers who have been maintained by the county for so long are now comfortably quartered in a big tent,” said a newspaper story, “but it will not be long before a hospital will be ready for their accommodation.”

Finally, those who faced sickness, misfortune or some other cause had a safe home and friends. The residents must have also relished the hospital’s hot and cold running water, three inside bathrooms and electric lights, and, of course, no worries about food.

In 1911, regents of the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) were ready to set up a branch experiment station in Southern Oregon. It would be part of a statewide network of sites aimed at studying the variety of soils, climate and other natural conditions, and the effect they might have on local agriculture.

Twenty acres surrounding the county hospital were set aside for the station, and a two-story superintendent’s home and office was built along the still unpaved road that would become the Pacific Highway.

Officially, the hospital and experiment station complex was “the County Farm,” but it didn’t always stick.

“The problem was,” said onetime Prospect resident Jack Hollenbeak, “everybody called it the county poor farm, so that put a brand on it.”

By the late 1970s, as Social Security and other community programs reduced the need for a “poor farm,” the county hospital was repaired and turned over to the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

The county experiment station moved to Hanley Road, and the fallow fields and orchards near Talent soon were home to the county’s Community Justice Work Release Center, animal shelter, and a vehicle maintenance facility.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.