Section 2: Richland County Poor Farm

Richland County lies along the Red River south of Cass County, and forms the border with South Dakota.  The farm land has good Red River Valley soil.  There were several bonanza farms in Richland County including the Bagg Farm.  Though there were many good opportunities for employment in Richland County, there were people who could not take advantage of those opportunities and needed help from the county.

By 1895, Richland County had established a home for the poor on 240 acres of land one mile south of Wahpeton.  The superintendent was Henry Bader.  Henry’s wife, Catherine Zech Bader assisted him as matron.  Mrs. Bader’s title meant that she cared for the women and children at the poor farm and was responsible for the cooking and cleaning. 

The buildings on the farm grounds were mostly patched together from several old buildings meant for other purposes.  The residents usually had their own rooms in the buildings.  Families lived together in one or two rooms.  The basement of the main building was built of concrete and contained a laundry, cold storage for fruits and vegetables, a furnace, and a water storage and pumping system.  Sewage was pumped from the building to a retention pond.  Two hundred acres of the land were cultivated.   The farm could support the residents in a good year. 

The first group of people who lived at the poor farm were typical of the residents of most county farms.  There was one woman and her children, four elderly men and women, and two young girls.  There was one person who was later transferred to the State Hospital for the Insane at Jamestown. 

The stories of some of these people tell us a little about why they ended up at the poor farm.  The three old men had signed their farms over to their sons.  Though the sons of all three men had promised to care for their fathers at home, they did not.  Elderly, poor, and with nowhere else to go, the men had to move into the home at the poor farm.  The one elderly woman who lived at the poor farm in 1895, may have been sent by her children, or may have lost her home when her husband died.  It is also possible that in her old age, her children found her very difficult to care for, so they sent her to the only place that could take in elderly people without means which was the poor farm.

Frank Cruchek had a different story.  He grew up in a terribly violent home.  He was apparently developmentally disabled, or “simple” as the records show.   He was fifteen when his mother died.  Unable to care for himself, the only place for him to go was the poor farm. 

Two families also turned to the poor farm when family distress left them with no choice.  The Beam sisters were too young to be on their own, their mother was working, and their father was dead.  They probably remained in the home until they were old enough to go to work themselves.  Mrs. Trebble’s family was apparently also troubled by violence.  Mrs. Trebble’s husband was charged with killing a man in Richland County.  It is likely that she left her husband and turned to the county poor farm for protection for herself and her children. 

Mrs. Trebble’s children, the Beam sisters, and the other children who lived at the Richland County poor farm were enrolled in public schools.  Mrs. Bader saw to it that the children were dressed in clean clothes, given a lunch, and sent to learn their lessons.  County commissioners hoped that with a good education, the children living at the poor farm would not become “permanent poor.” 

In 1912, University of North Dakota sociologist, John Gillette visited the Richland County Farm.  He found eight residents, several of whom he described as “feeble-minded.”  Others he described as “old derelicts . . . and paralytics.”  At the poor farms he visited, Professor Gillette found that the number of residents who were born in foreign countries outnumbered those who were born in the United States.   While Gillette’s ideas were very typical of the way people thought about the poor and foreigners in those days, today we can see that the institutions available to help people in need in those days were very limited.  With few other resources, it is not surprising that the residents of the poor farm tended to be elderly, disabled, and foreign born.

Why is this important?In the history of the United States, one role of local government has been to care for those in need.  In North Dakota, concern about humane and sanitary conditions for those who were dependent on charity led to the formation of poor farms and other forms of poor relief.  On the other hand, county commissioners did not want to perpetuate poverty.  John Gillette and many county commissioners and others believed that “the dishonest will insist on being supported.”   Gillette supported a system that met the counties’ needs, while not providing a free ride for people who should have been able to support themselves.

The other function of the poor farms was to provide medical care to the poor.  County governments paid a doctor to care for the ill and the chronically or seriously ill were encouraged to enter the hospital at the county farm.  While this care can be seen as a humane effort to provide for the needs of the poor, it was also a way to prevent the spread of public health diseases such as tuberculosis (TB).

Sources:  Catherine Zech Bader Blake interview, WPA, Richland County; Mother’s Pension Law, Laws of North Dakota, 1915; John M. Gillette, “Poor-Relief and Jails in North Dakota,” Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota,  vol. III, no. 2, (January 1913):  99-137.