Poor Farm History

The Ray County Poor Farm was built in the shape of a “Y” in 1910 at a cost of $19,491.That cost included wiring, plumbing, & heating. It has 14,424 square feet of floor space, and three floors with 54 rooms. The eight masonry walls are 14″ thick up to the roof, and fire doors at the wing entrances. The side porches are approximately 200 square feet each. Its unique design earned the County Home a place on the National Register of Historical Places. The building was used as a Poor Farm until the 1960’s when it became a nursing home.  In the 1970’s, this unique building became the Ray County Museum sponsored by the Ray County Historical Society.

The 1910 building was not the first Poor Farm in Ray County. The original Poor Farm operated around 1860 and was located near the intersection of what is now Highway B and Highway F. The farm had 126 acres of land. The first Poor Farm Superintendent was David Rimmer and in addition to his own family, the farm housed six people that the county felt could not care for themselves for one reason or another. George Cook was the last superintendent at the old Poor Farm. He was paid $25 a month plus room and board for his family. When the county built the new Poor Farm, the pay was raised to $75 a month plus room and board. The first superintendent in the new building was Sexus T Simms. 

In 1928 the Board for the Visiting of Corrective Institutions paid their semi-annual visit to the Poor Farm and gave Andy Ballard, the superintendent, very high marks and recommended his salary be increased. Mr. Ballard received $100 a month but had to pay for an assistant out of his own pocket. 

People were placed at the Ray County Poor Farm simply because they could not take care of themselves and became wards of the county. The people who lived at the Poor Farm can be broken up into two major groups — medical and hard times. The Poor Farm was the predecessor of the nursing homes and many who lived there were there because of old age and no family around. There were a few privately run rest homes within Richmond, but those staying there (or their family and friends) had to pay to keep them there. There are also cases of people who were blind and or mute being placed in the Poor Farm. People were also placed at the Poor Farm through hardships. However, the Ray County Court had to give their approval before a person or family was allowed to stay at the farm. Room and board were provided once the person was approved for the Poor Farm. But living there was not free. 

The county wanted the farm to be as self-sufficient as possible and everyone who could work was required to work on the farm one way or another. Women did a lot of the cleaning and sewing and men had to help with the garden, the livestock, and with making general repairs around the farm. At times, the Poor Farm provided temporary housing for families or individuals who needed a place to stay until regular housing could be found. Sometimes orphans sometimes stayed there while waiting for the Orphan Train. There were a few cases where the Poor Farm was used as a shelter. In one case, a mother and her children were taken to the Poor Farm for safekeeping while the sheriff looked for the husband/father. He had been abusing them and threatened to kill them all. Some people that were admitted to the Poor Farm simply because they did not have the money to take care of themselves and didn’t have any family who could help. The last group pertains to the jail. There were two totally different groups for this subject.

In 1917, the State of Missouri passed a law making it a duty of the county court to provide a place of detention for minor children who committed crimes. The place had to be separate and apart from “places in which are confined adults convicted or under arrest.” 

The Poor Farm was NEVER an insane asylum.

Rod Fields has spent hundreds of hours doing research on the Ray County Poor Farm and found that over 500 people lived there. In writing about his research, he said, “they were poor, unfortunate people and families. These were real people with feelings and emotions that were down on their luck for one reason or another. The county judges did everything they could do to make everyone feel at home and part of a family, but I am willing to guess it was not the same as their own family.”

Rod Fields shared his interest in the history of the Ray County Home (poor farm)  with members of the Ray County Historical Society last week, during their annual membership meeting.

Fields began doing volunteer work at the Ray County Museum last year and became interested in the history of the building after discovering that a  relative had once been a resident of the “Poor Farm”.

The Ray County Museum building was built as a county home (poor farm) in 1910 at a cost of $19,491, which included wiring, plumbing, &  heating. Built in the shape of a “Y” with 14,424 square feet of floor space, the building has three floors with 54 rooms, eight masonry walls which are 14″ thick up to the roof, and fire doors at the wing entrances. The side porches are approximately 200 square feet each. The building rectangle would cover 1/3 of an acre. It was used as a Poor Farm until the 1960’s and was used as a nursing home until the early 1970’s.  In the 1970’s, the building became the Ray County Museum.

Fields interest grew as he dug deeper and deeper into the history of the Poor Farm in Ray County. The poor farm served as a nursing home, a hospital, a jail for juveniles and a shelter. Fields stressed it was never an “insane asylum.” Some of the people stayed only a few days, while others stayed half a century. It wasn’t a free ride and it wasn’t just poor families who had relatives living at the site.

Actually, the building being used as the Ray County Museum wasn’t the first “poor farm” in Ray County. In 1855, George W. Keys was appointed to find a location for a poor farm and it was built about six miles northeast of Richmond in the vicinity of the Timber Ridge Camp Ground. That building burned down in 1882 and was rebuilt. By 1909, the building was in such bad shape a Ray County Grand Jury slammed the operation and began looking for a new site.

Woodson Alnutt, who also was involved in building the Farris Theater, was given the contract to build a new County Home in 1909 and the building was completed in 1910. Residents began moving into the new building on May 20. The “new” building was very modern for the time with electricity and indoor plumbing. Through its years of operation, there were 19 different superintendents and they all lived at the farm. The superintendent’s pay ranged anywhere from $75 to $125 per month and they had to pay their assistants from their salary. While the average length of employment was 5.5 years, Any Wallace Ballard and his wife, ran the home for over a quarter of a century from March 1, 1923, to February 28, 1949.

The Ballards were well respected in the community and by those who lived at the county home. The home was inspected by a Ray County Grand Jury who may appear anytime without warning. In the years the Ballards operated the home, the grand jury reported they were unable to find a single point for criticism in the operation. In 1932, the grand jury commented on the remarkably low cost of operating the home in comparison with other counties. In 1930, the rate was 31 cents per inmate per day, which included all costs of food supplies, clothing, water, lights, fuel, insurance, repairs, etc. By comparison, the rate was around $1 per day per inmate in Clay, Lafayette, Carroll and Caldwell counties. Each inmate (resident) had certain duties to perform and they all insisted that they be given some of the employment required to maintain the institution.

For a short time, the county court (commission) considered replacing six old-style hand-operated washing machines with new electric ones. When they made the suggestion to Mrs. Ballard, she replied, “oh, my no — the men that operate these washers would be totally lost if you would do so. They take great pride in their work and each one has his own individual machine.” During Mr. and Mrs. Ballards’ tenure, there were 477 persons admitted to the county home. The most that lived there were 62 and the lowest was 24. It is believed that the state’s old-age pension law had something to do with the reduction in the number of occupants.

Clay County judges (commissioners) came to visit the county home and look at its operation. They advised the Ray County judges that if there came a time they no longer wanted the Ballards, to let them know because they would take them in Clay County. Fields said as an example of the costs of operation, in the 2nd quarter of 1919, the county spent $1,624.64 to operate the home. In today’s dollars, that would amount to about $22,000.

When Fields was asked about his favorite “finds” in his research, he said “everything”.

“I am feeling closer and closer to everybody who came through here,” he said. As his research continues, he grows more attached to the building.