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Cities have swallowed up farmland and farm stories, including that of the Olmsted County Poor Farm

The Olmsted County Poor Farm was established in 1868 as a 240-acre working farm, and was moved to various locations by the county until it remained in the same spot from 1896 until it closed in 1943. The original farmhouse of the Olmsted County Poor Farm is now a three-story apartment complex in southeast Rochester.

Poor farm.JPG
A 1911 postcard depicting the Olmsted County Poor Farm house.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — County or municipal poor farms were a reality for society’s most vulnerable throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The passage of a law in 1864 required each county in Minnesota to provide a farm for the destitute based on the size of its poor population. 

According to excerpts from the "History of Olmsted County, Minnesota,” published in 1910, the Olmsted County Poor Farm was established in 1868 as a working farm. 

It was a 240-acre lot in Marion Township that Olmsted County paid $3,600 for. Six years later, the county moved the facility to Rochester Township, before the farm moved one more time to a site about a mile south of the city. It was just south of what became the city's airport from about 1929 to 1961.

That final move was prompted by a fire that destroyed the residence, but according to the Rochester Post at the time, no one died in but the occupants barely escaped.

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The house and farm that replaced it is the building that can be seen in some old postcards of Rochester. As of 1910, about 20 "inmates" lived in the big wood-frame house. The poor farm was closed in 1943 and sold to Mayo Properties, which also owned the nearby airport grounds. The house was purchased in the late '40s and remodeled as an apartment building.

Today, the building now houses the Graham Apartment complex. 

Wayne Gannaway, executive director of the History Center of Olmsted County, said buildings, stories and farms like that of the Olmsted County Poor Farm have been erased due to urban sprawl in the city of Rochester.

“Rochester definitely has that sprawling nature that kind of gobbles up and continues to transform agricultural land to housing — and that is housing that has the characteristics of sprawl,” said Gannaway. 

He said it’s an issue that many farmers still within the city or in surrounding communities are being forced to face. 

“Farmers, especially second and third generation farmers, are confronting what to do with the farm when the economics have changed,” said Gannaway. “I think it really gets to the heart of an important question.”

The end of the poor farms

Gannaway said that poor farms — otherwise known as poorhouses — go back to the colonial period. 

“Essentially, it was like society's version of a safety net,” he said of poor farms. “You go there when either you can't pay your debts, or you're destitute, and that was kind of that main purpose.”

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In the book “Lost Rochester, Minnesota” by author Amy Hahn cites an opinion article by A.W. Blakely and Sons that ran in the June 15, 1894 Record & Union. The article stated that the farm was a disgrace and "better fitted for the detention of criminals than a home for the county poor."

In the article, the poor farm's house was described as a "tumble-down makeshift for a house”, and the editorial criticized the county for keeping a beautiful and comfortable jail, “complete with well-kept green lawns and modern conveniences for criminals, while the county’s innocent poor, elderly, and sick were forced to live in an overcrowded house that lacked even the most basic plumbing.”

When the farm moved to its new location two years later, an 1897 Rochester Post article described the new building as "a handsome … structure that could not fail at once to command the attention and admiration of the most casual observer—a new home of the Olmsted County poor … causes the heart of the true citizen to swell with pride."

Many of these farms began to fade away following the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Olmsted County Poor Farm closed in 1943, according to the book. 

NOTE: Has urban sprawl impacted your farm or ranch operation or is it something you are anticipating happening? Agweek would like to hear your stories of how changing communities have changed farming where you live. Please contact nfish@agweek.com to tell your story.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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