Monday, August 25, 2008

The Poor Farm

Anna Toy aged 30, a native of Jefferson County is an idiot, has been in the poor house a long time and bids fair to spend many more years there.”-Jefferson Democrat Hillsboro, Jefferson, Missouri, November 14, 1873-

I came across this item on the WWW a while back. Everything about it was quite haunting.
I don’t recall what I was originally looking for, but somehow I became fascinated.
I started reading an article about the Jefferson County Missouri Poor Farm. The article was not especially long and like many articles, left this curious reader with more questions than answers.
This I did learn; The county poor farm, which was active from around 1860 until sometime in the 1940’s is /was a mere seven or so miles from my own compound.
For eighty years, paupers, the insane, idiots and lunatics (official U.S. census terms) were housed on this one hundred-sixty acre spread.
This in itself was not rare or unusual. Throughout the country these farms could be found in nearly every rural county in the U.S. The interesting thing about this one though, aside from the fact that it is close to my house, is that many of the buildings are still intact. Things in this county do not change
very fast, so as I read the article I soon decided a road trip was in my near future.
Not knowing exactly where the poor farm was, I contacted the Jefferson County Historical Society via email. Two of the members contacted me the next day telling me exactly how to find the farm and where to find more info of the analog, non-internet kind. Betty, from that society, also happens to be a librarian in the nearby town of DeSoto and has devoted quite a bit of floor space in the library to local historical records and documents.
The second member of the society, Dave, gave me directions on how to access the cemetery. The difficult part was that the farm’s land had been split up and sold off. The cemetery remains on a small island of non-maintained, county-owned land, completely surrounded by private property. I would have to get permission from one of the land owners to cross their land if I wanted to get to it. This was a huge personal barrier. I don’t like talking to strangers when I need / want something from them. I greatly respect people’s time and property and do not like to intrude. However for this, my curiosity was stronger than my timidity.
Saturday morning I awoke early, around seven and went through my morning ritual of wheezing, sneezing, complaining, etc., though anxious to get started. I was out of the house by eight-thirty. It was fairly warm and incredibly humid, but this could not wait.
I arrived at the address and was greeted by a small, but very well fed pack of Australian cattle dogs. They proved to be more curious than angry or frightened and let me pass unharmed, to the front door. I knocked, rehearsing my introduction in my mind. The door was answered immediately by an average looking drowsy guy holding a half cup of coffee.
“I’m sorry to bother you sir, but I’ve been in contact with the County Historical Society and have been told that the old Poor Farm cemetery is accessible only through your property. Is that information correct?”
He sighed and took a sip. “Yeah, up that fence line till the woods narrow and hit another fence line, about a half mile” he said pointing non-specifically and unenthusiastically.
“Sir, would you mind if I were to grab my camera and take a hike up there, I don’t want to bother anything, especially you, so if it’s any trouble at all. . .”  I had started whining, which caused him to want to be rid of me.. (this always works well, doesn’t it ladies?)
“Nah, go on ahead. It’s pretty rough, no one goes back there and no one tends to the place, besides there’s nothing to see but a couple of rocks sticking up, there’s no real markers or anything.” He added that his name was ‘Mike’ and that sure enough, these were some pretty fine dogs. I left him my name and asked if my car was blocking his, he said no, much the way someone says something, anything, just to get back to what they were doing.
I wasted no time. I went to the car, grabbed my camera and my hiking pack. (Angel calls it a fanny pack, but I know better) The pack, which I’ve been building up and adding to for the last few weeks includes lens cleaning stuff, an extra camera battery, a notepad and a couple of pens, a small flashlight, some snack crackers, some paper towels, a buck knife, a compass and an emergency poncho. It has accommodations for all that, plus two water bottles and room enough on the belt to strap on my extra lens. All in all I pack about ten extra pounds on these hikes, as if I need to be packing around ten extra pounds.
Fully prepared, and by that I mean that I completely forgot the insect repellant (again) and my cap, I marched into the woods. One of the Aussies tagged along the whole way, the others stayed behind in their cooler, tick-free yard.
The fence was merely a strand or two of rusted barb wire, the woods were nearly impenetrable. Mike had been right, no one had ventured into this area in quite a while It was completely overgrown, thick with spider webs, broken trees and branches and many, many years worth of fallen leaves. The fence line finally split, the line I was following went to the left and around a small wooded area and ended at a hay field, which had its own fence.
I crossed into the dark, wooded area that was a section unto itself. The Aussie was still at my heels, though now busy chasing and being chased by an enormous horsefly. There was no path at all in there. I stopped and just stood for a moment, wiping the ample sweat out of my eyes and gulping back the remainder of my first water bottle, now lukewarm. Cleaning my glasses I scouted around for anything that looked like a cemetery.
I found some evidence; depressions in the ground here and there roughly six to seven feet long and about three feet wide. These depressions were not pronounced, but they were definitely there. Several, perhaps a dozen or more that I could make out, most with trees growing directly from the middle. Frankly, if I had not been looking for six by three depressions in the ground, I probably would not have seen them at all. When I did find the stones that Mike had mentioned, it was clear to me that these too could easily go unnoticed by someone not actively seeking a cemetery. The four or five stones I found were common field stones, not carved, shaped or even etched. They were in a rough row but of different natural shapes and sizes. They were all half buried in the forest floor and covered with moss. It is unlikely anything was ever scribed into them, or if it was it was it was very shallow and long ago worn off. I had seen grave-sites like this before, back in Kentucky, those were the graves of slaves. Cast off, untended, unmarked, unprotected.
The Aussie and I stood among the stones and depressions discussing things natural and
anthropological. I of course did most of the talking, since I had studied up a bit more than the dog. I took several pictures, and even though it was nearly ten in the morning on a bright summer day, in the thick of these woods I had to use the flash to get enough light.
I did not speak to the buried residents there as they do in the movies. I am not at all superstitious that way. Somewhere beneath my feet lay a score or two of cheap (low bid) pine boxes filled with the physical remains of once desperate and now completely forgotten, people. Not that I didn’t feel anything, I was merely  under no delusion that they could hear me or that they could answer.
I knew from the research I had done that there was never anything more here than crude wooden crosses, now long, long gone. No record I know of lays out who is there or where or when they were laid there.
To be buried in this place indicates a complete absence of support from any anyone, personal, family, church, friends. These were the most pitiful and forgotten of the county’s residents. Some were committed to the farm by the court, others simply had no other earthly place to go. More recent pauper burials take place in town, so not only are those buried here abandoned, the entire cemetery is as well.
I have several times sat and stared at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery in D.C. The heaviness I felt in these woods was very much like that. They lived lives, perhaps miserable, painful and damaged lives, but human lives nonetheless. Now they are gone and likely forever unknown.

After a while, the Aussie and I emerged from the woods. I was covered with sweat and enough spider webs to knit a kimono. I was starting to itch from the various bugs and tiny mites (chiggers) that I now carried around in vast quantity.
Mike was outside, wandering around his well-maintained yard. He looked at me and laughed. “Kinda humid out eh?” I sucked back a half bottle of warm water, smacked the quick release buckle on my hiking pack (not a fanny pack). And let it and my camera rest on the front of my car. Mike and I chatted for a bit, I asked him if he knew much more about the farm, no, he didn’t, he’d only lived there for a few years.
I said so-long to the Aussie which had now blended back in with the others, though I could still pick him out easily by all the burrs in his fur. The others seemed a little jealous over his adventure.
I drove straight home with the AC cranked up to ‘11’. I jumped in the shower, had a quick sandwich, said howdy to the family then headed out to the DeSoto library.
I spent three hours poring through the Local History section. There I found a printed copy of the article I had originally read, some census reports, and… well, that’s all there was. Disappointed, I called it a day.
My lovely wife Angel and I have discussed the farm at length. I told her all I had learned and how it haunted me for no good reason. She of course said I should write about it, I told her that of course I would blog of the experience. She replied, “No, I mean you should write a story or even a book.”
“I don’t know anything about the farm that I haven’t already told you” I responded.
“Are you saying there aren’t any story ideas there?”
I thought about this for a bit and we talked about it that evening. “Of course there are stories there, lots of them, I just don’t know what they are”
“Well” she replied “It doesn’t sound like anyone else does either, so who’s to tell you you’re story is wrong?”
Okay, she had me…