Mendocino County Poor Farm
by Katy Tahja, February 10, 2016
It’s always nice as a journalist to know people are reading my feature stories in the Anderson Valley Advertiser . Sometimes readers approach me with story ideas they want to know about. AVA subscriber Alice Chouteau came up to me at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino where I work and said “Katy, I want you to write a story about the county poor farm. I always wanted to know more about it…” So this piece of writing is dedicated to Alice and I hope she enjoys it.
Needless to say, county poor farms or almshouses were not the most publicized of institutions. Thanks to the Held-Poage Library of the Mendocino County Historical Society and their newspaper clippings files I found fleeting references to the programs in our county.
In 1904 California state government provided a framework in law ordering Boards of Supervisors to construct, officer (administer), and maintain hospitals and almshouses to provide for indigent, sick and dependent poor and for such purpose they could levy tax. If the county found the so-called indigent person actually had access to income the county could take that person to court to recover the cost of their care.
Who was liable for the support of a poor relative before the county took them in as indigent? If you had a kindred husband, wife, child, parent, grandparent, grandchild, brother or sister THEY were liable to support you and you could not claim to be an indigent. One year of residence in the county was also required.
So county by county variations on the theme of a poor farm and hospital appeared. They would have dormitories, kitchen & dining hall, croplands, dairy, orchard, poultry yard, hog pens, woodsheds, hospital, a “pest house” and a cemetery. “Pest houses” were separate facilities on the property for people with incurable diseases like tuberculous. Their families lived with them since they had all been exposed to the same illness. Physicians were the judges of who would be assigned to the poor farm.
In 1882 Ukiah’s Dispatch Democrat announced the county paid $4,000 for the Tom Gibson 155 acre ranch at Low Gap Road and Bush streets. Today everything including the Board of Supervisors chambers and the county jail complexes cover the land that was once the county poor farm. Twenty acres was deemed first class garden land and the rest good rangeland. The county directed that suitable buildings of sufficient capacity be erected and that inmates who could do such work as their health permits would contribute activities towards their own support. One dollar in taxes of every male resident over the age of 21 yearly would support the poor farm and hospital.
The same newspaper in 1910 reported the county provided for the aged & infirm in a manner that reflected the generosity & unselfishness of the taxpayers throughout the area. A number of nice cottages had been erected and fitted up comfortably where indigent sick are attended to & those whose misfortunes have deprived them of support are provided for. There were 60 inmates, also called patients, with a steward to oversee operations and a medical superintendent. It was stated that no similar institution in the state was kept in better condition.
Dr. E,W, Mankins was an early medical director followed by Dr. John Hogshead & Dr, Judson Lift-Child. In 1908 more cottages were built though it was noted that other buildings needed a coat of paint. In 1910 a new cookhouse 40’ by 80’ with a modern range weighing 1,600 pounds was built with floors polished and oiled. It was noted the new building made the lives of the unfortunate ones much pleasenter. The old cook house became a female ward and plans were made for a tubercular ward, that proverbial “pest house.”
Melissa Kandrick, a native of Anderson Valley, whose oral history interview was featured in “Mendocino County Remembered” said her step-father George Lambert was once a steward at the county poor farm. There were 50 inmates in old wooden building, a piggery, nice gardens and her mom was caretaker of the woman inhabitants. She lived there 10 years starting in 1908.
In 1924 the county planned to build a detention home for 20 to 30 juvenile delinquents and women so as not to incarcerate them in the county jail. This home would have a matron in charge earning $100 a month, a cook, a nurse and a housekeeper. Expected to cost $30,000 it was completed in 1937.
So what went on in a county poor farm? Everyone worked to the best of their abilities. If you were healthy enough to plow behind a horse or make firewood you did so If that was too exhausting you could slop hogs or pick fruit in the orchard. Women & men both could work in the dairy or gardens. Women inmates did housekeeping, cooking, laundry and mending. Old folks did babysitting and collected eggs. People brought in firewood and tended flower gardens amidst the cottages, scrubbed floors and helped preserve fruit & vegetables .The poor farm and hospital were largely self-supporting well into the 20th century.
Hospitals in Ukiah were private institutions but medical services were provided for inmates and the poor at the hospital ward on the poor farm. By 1951 the county decided to build a General Hospital and support it. The remaining building of that facility is on the corner of Bush and Low Gap today, now county offices. The county also undertook construction of a new Juvenile Hall and Tuberculous ward at that time. These things take time but by 1957 there was a 54 bed hospital and 13 more beds in the TB ward. Some patients remained in the TB ward 20 years.
With the arrival of social welfare programs during the Depression the need to maintain poor farms diminished. I could find no newspaper dates that said when the last poor farm inmate left but the General Hospital could not compete with private hospitals and it too closed. The old county poor farm and its hospitals became an interesting tidbit of history for this researcher to investigate 65 years later.