Some terms cannot help but evoke the past. Think "orphanage" or "asylum," or perhaps "poor house." If that sounds like something you would find in nineteenth-century England, you don’t have to go that far. Many Michigan counties once had some kind of government-run residence for people in need. Kalamazoo had not just a poor house, but a “poor farm” on land that is now a county park.
“This is something that people just accepted as a matter of course a century ago,” says Kalamazoo City Commissioner Jack Urban, who used to serve on the county commission. As the county debates its role in fighting poverty and homelessness, Urban says he’d like to know more about Kalamazoo’s onetime home for the indigent.
Before we explore the grounds, we turn to Lynn Houghton of Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections for background.
“When Michigan became a territory in 1805, one of the early laws was taking care of the poor,” Houghton said, adding that counties became responsible for helping to house the indigent.
“A lot of counties in a lot of states in the United States adopted the practice of what they were doing in Great Britain, and that was creating what they referred to as alm houses or poorhouses or in our instance here it was poor farms,” she said.
Kalamazoo founded its poor farm around 1849, on land in Comstock Township near the Kalamazoo River. Houghton says ledgers from the farm offer clues about who lived there.
“I think it would amaze people when they see what were reasons for why people were institutionalized,” she said.
Those reasons included alcoholism, hearing impairment and simply old age. A number of residents had intellectual disabilities. Orphans lived at the poor farm, and children whose parents could not support them.
Sometimes the ledger gives pregnancy as a reason, and Houghton says working as a prostitute could also get you sent there.
“You see some patters - homelessness, we look at illness,” she said, noting that the ledger also mentions injuries.
“Somebody with a broken arm. Where do they get sent? They get sent to the poor farm.”
In some accounts, life at the farm sounds all right. The Kalamazoo Gazette tells the story of Frank DeWolf, a sailor who lived his later years there and died in 1909.
DeWolf reportedly had relatives who would have gladly housed him. But he preferred the farm, where he kept company with the deer that lived in the woods.
But other accounts are not so favorable. Kalamazoo minister Caroline Bartlett Crane investigated the farm in 1908. Houghton says she wrote a “scathing” report.
“The children were not allowed to go outside, there wasn’t any nursing care, very little nursing care for the people who were ill. I mean it just breaks your heart when you read this,” Houghton said.
In 1919, at least four residents died after eating food contaminated with roach poison.
Houghton says the poor farm eventually became more like an early nursing home, a place for the elderly and infirm, until it closed in the early 1970s. The grounds then reopened as River Oaks County Park.
County Parks Director Dave Rachowicz stands by a patch of land north of the area that’s now the dog park. He says the county tore down the residence after it closed. But it’s kept and restored one of the barns. Another barn, for dairy cows, is gone, except for a distinctive brown silo.
“It’s a ceramic block silo. There used to be a factory here in Kalamazoo that manufactured those, so probably was made here in Kalamazoo and ended up on this site,” Rachowicz says.
Rachowicz says most of the roads in the park date to the farm. The baseball and soccer fields used to hold crops. Then there’s the woods to the west of the dog park.
“This is the cemetery,” he says.
If you have visited River Oaks, you might be scratching your head. The woods doesn’t look like a cemetery. But Rachowicz says that after extensive research, the parks department is confident that around 47 people are buried in that area.
“Most of the graves were either unmarked or marked with wooden markers. There were stone markers at one point that are no longer here. We don’t know why. But most of the people who were buried here didn’t have resources for expensive markers or burials,” Rachowicz says, adding that the parks department is working on plans for a monument.
City Commissioner Jack Urban, who wanted to know more about the county poor farm, says he doesn’t know whether Kalamazoo was more charitable in those days. He says it’s possible the county simply had more desperate people.
“There were a lot more widows that were penniless before Social Security. There were a lot more orphans that had both parents dying from disease or injury,” he said.
But, Urban says, when the county considers whether to use its resources to help house people in poverty, he thinks it should remember the poor farm.
“I just kind of want to remind people that this isn’t a new idea,” he said.