Preserving the Poor Farm

Kaufman County Saving Piece of History

At the turn of the century, convicted thief Bob Farris spent 64 days working the fields and tending livestock for Kaufman County. He’d been laboring to pay off a $100 fine and the cost of his six-month imprisonment. But Farris wanted his freedom, and on July 2, 1904, he took it.
Three decades after Farris’ escape, a little boy in overalls fetched a quart jar of preserves almost half his size in a root cellar as his mother waited outside. The floor-to-ceiling shelves surrounding him held dozens more tin-topped Ball jars filled with tomatoes, peas and okra from the surrounding fields.

Both Farris and the freckle-faced boy called the Kaufman County Poor Farm "home." The farm, founded on 408 acres in 1881 to serve the county’s indigent, also later housed county prisoners and quarantined county residents during a smallpox epidemic in 1900. 

The last residents left the farm in the 1970s. Since then, the county has repurposed much of the land for other uses — the county’s library, emergency children’s shelter, appraisal district offices and courthouse annex. But Kaufman County kept the core 27 acres of the farm intact with what remain of its 19th and 20th century buildings, including residents’ living quarters, the farm superintendent’s house, barns, a silo, a well and pump house, a chapel, a jail, a hen house and several pieces of farming equipment. 

The poor farm received a Texas Historical Commission Subject Marker in 1997, which the Kaufman County Historical Commission dedicated a year later. Today, the site is one of the few county-owned poor farms in Texas.

Poor Farm Origins

The hardships of the Civil War and concurrent demise of charitable organizations that served the indigent left many more needy Texans at war’s end. To help them, an 1869 addendum to the Texas Constitution charged the state’s counties with providing a Manual Labor Poor House “for taking care of, managing, employing and supplying the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants.” It also specified that “all persons committing petty offences in the county may be committed to such Manual Labor Poor House, for correction and employment.”

Several Texas counties established poor farms as an efficient way to aid their indigent residents, who would live and work on the farms to support themselves. County inmates often worked off their sentences on the farms and were jailed there as well. 

A 1987 Texas Historical Commission Survey of county clerks revealed that at least 65 of the state’s 254 counties at one time had poor farms. According to the survey, most were in the state’s central, northern and eastern counties. Today it’s hard to say exactly how many of these historic sites remain across the state and how many are still owned by counties.

Preservation Efforts Reinvigorated

Realizing the value of the poor farm, Kaufman County Historical Commission members began efforts some 30 years ago to save the farm with plans to eventually turn it into a heritage tourism destination and educational resource. But the realities of a tight budget and an all-volunteer labor force meant that all they could really do was try to keep the farm’s remaining buildings from succumbing to weather and vandals. 

“We would take 10 steps forward and 15 steps back,” said Jamie Laywell, the commission’s part-time office manager. “We would put new windows in the (superintendent’s) house and they’d get broken out. We’d get squatters. It’s been a bad situation.”

The circumstances changed in 2012, when advocacy group Preservation Texas added the farm to its Most Endangered Places list. The designation helps boost awareness of important historic resources and the preservation efforts to save them, and it helped breathe new life into the commission’s dreams.

The group recently hired Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture LLP of Dallas to produce a historic structures report and a conceptual master plan of the site. The Friends of the Kaufman County Historical Commission has begun fundraising for the farm and, armed with the completed master plan, commission members intend to apply for grants. All money raised will support several efforts, including the restoration and preservation of the salvageable farm buildings, creation of a visitor’s center and construction of an interpretive trail throughout the property.

“This was the original arm of indigent care. It was done correctly at the local level where it actually helped people become self-sufficient instead of making them dependent on the federal government,” said Kaufman County Commissioner Jimmy Vrzalik, who has taken a special interest in the farm. “I hope that we can find the funding to do what’s necessary (to save it). For history’s sake, for community’s sake, I think it’s important that we educate the younger generation about the past.” 

Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood said the Most Endangered Places designation has helped draw the public’s attention to the site and that many long-time county residents may be able to contribute stories to help flesh out its history. 

“Our history is always with us,” Wood said. “The farm museum and the activities that we’re trying to reinvigorate at the county poor farm are a part of our history that we should never forget.”

As is the case with many of Kaufman County’s residents, Wood’s and Vrzalik’s families have deep roots in the county’s farming community. A decade ago, the Texas Department of Agriculture presented Wood’s family with a 150-year Texas Family Land Heritage certificate for his great grandfathers’ farm, which has been in the family’s hands for 160 years.

Vrzalik’s grandparents moved to Kaufman County from Czechoslovakia in the 1800s, and he and his family live on his maternal grandparents’ farm.

Longtime Kaufman County families will be tapped to help shine a light on this part of the county’s history. “Everybody whose family is from here, they have their own little story that relates (to the poor farm) in one way or another,” said Stan Kapp, chair of the commission’s Endangered Properties Committee. Recording these stories as part of a poor farm oral historic project is another way the commission hopes to capture and tell its history.

But for now, the group is focusing on more immediate needs. Led by Kapp, crews of volunteers, trusties from the county jail and probationers have cleared the tangles of grasses, vines and shrubs overrunning some farm buildings.  

“I’m just glad that we have the men and women who’ve taken such an interest to make sure we don’t lose this out here,” said Kaufman County Commissioner Ray Clark. “Next to the real estate, they are probably the greatest asset. They are appreciated even if they aren’t funded very well.”

Kaufman County Commissioner Kenneth Shoen also lauded commission members for their dedication and work in preserving the farm. “They are really involved and I’m most appreciative of that,” he said.

The next step for the commission will be to remove trees, such as the bois d’arc, mulberries and cedar elms that push through the middles of some of the old structures. They weigh on leaning walls and half-collapsed ceilings of a drying shed, a tool shed and other buildings. “Every time we have a storm, we’re this much closer to losing buildings,” Kapp said.

A walk around the farm is a tour of obsolete agricultural technology. A combine rusts in the middle of a mulberry mott. A hay bailer, a circle mower, a John Deere cotton picker and other aging equipment sits discarded amongst decades-old jail doors, a grinding wheel and a toppled Civil War monument moved from the courthouse lawn.

“When we’re working out here we can come across something from the 1920s and the 1950s,” Kapp said. “I feel like Indiana Jones. It’s like when they closed, it was just left here.”

A Gem in the Rough

Artifacts and other unusual features on the property hint at the wealth of stories to be uncovered and shared. The original fencing from one of the county’s earlier courthouses found its way to the farm and now rims the yard around the superintendent’s house. Murals, most likely painted in the 1930s by a resident, depict colorfully dressed cowboys on horseback and cover four walls of a room in the trusty barracks. Axe blows notch the hand-hewn post oak supports in a century-old barn constructed from trees probably felled from the property.  

The commission continues to introduce visitors to the slice of county history by hosting groups of school children and holding events such as its annual Living History Day in October, which features demonstrations for butter churning, rope making and soap making. 

“This is the jewel in the county right now,” said Jamie Laywell, the county historical commission’s part-time office manager.

But they can do little more without further funding.

“We want to do our own museum, possibly furnish the superintendent’s house in period furniture and have our visitors’ center there. We want to do tours, do kiosks at each of the buildings and an all-weather walking trail that would connect all the buildings all the way around,” said Judy McSpadden, county historical commission chair. 

Commission members’ enthusiasm for the poor farm seems to be infectious. “I just really want to learn more about it,” said Kaufman County Commissioner Tom Manning. “It’s something I’m really interested in and I’m going to be a part of the Friends project.” 

Marcel Quimby, the preservation architect hired to produce the historic structures report and conceptual master plan, said her work will help the county focus its limited energy and resources. “The historic structures report will give them direction for what to do with each building, what the priorities are for each and which are the most significant,” Quimby said. “Like a lot of groups out there, they don’t have a lot of money to do everything at once. We’ll make a recommendation as to where to start.”

The master plan will describe how the county could develop the property and its buildings for different uses, such as a heritage tourism destination and museum. “It will show how to showcase them and identify different spaces for different activities,” Quimby said.

Of the 14 buildings remaining, the superintendent’s home, a trusty barracks, a combined barracks and dining hall and a jail seem to be in the best shape. “Those are the buildings that people lived in. Those are the ones the public will most relate to,” Quimby said. “There are several stories that can be told. There were a lot of people coming and going here.”

Several of the historical commission and commissioners court members singled out the renewed focus on the poor farm as a bright spot for the county during a year of losses. Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia and Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse were shot earlier this year. Charges have been filed against two suspects in the cases and a capital murder trial is pending.

“It helps us show that we’re not a county of all bad things,” Wood said. “The best part about this is that it shows we have a lot of good people here doing good work.”

Author’s note: Sources used for this article include: “The Old Kaufman County Poor Farm,” by Kathey Kelley Hunt, provided by the Kaufman County Historical Commission; “The County Poor Farm System in Texas,” by Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 93, July 1989-April, 1990; “Debtors Prisons and Poor Farms,” an unpublished manuscript by an unknown author provided by the Kaufman County Historical Commission.

Photo Captions: 1. The superintendent’s house at the Kaufman County Poor Farm is one of the best preserved buildings on the historic site. Standing at its front gate are, left to right, County Commissioner Jimmy Vrzalik, County Judge Bruce Wood and County Commissioner Ray Clark. 2. The residents’ barracks sits roughly in the center of the farm’s remaining 27-acres, with a root cellar shown to its left. 3. This mural and others inside the county trusty barracks are thought to have been painted by an inmate in the 1930s. 4. The axe notches in a post oak support show the work that went into constructing one of the poor farm’s barns.