The following untitled article is about the Howell County Poor Farm near West Plains, Missouri. It was taken from the local newspaper (The Quill ) on May 22, 1987.
BY MARIDETH SISCO. Quill Staff Writer
“The county sent a lot of people down there. Everybody that nobody wanted, they ended up down there," said Joe Aid, describing the Howell County Poor Farm.
Aid, West Plains, who is known for his collection of pictures and memorabilia, said he has no pictures of the Poor Farm. "I can't even remember seeing any," he said.
Doing research for the story brought back scenes from childhood with any grandmother admonishing her children about their spending habits, "Be careful, or you'll end up in the poor farm." or, commenting on people who used to live near us, I don't know what happened to them. They may have had to go to the poor farm."
To a child, it had the feeling of fairy tale monsters or being threatened by boogey man. Nobody would really do that to someone, would they?
But of course they would, and did. People with no place to go had to go somewhere.
In Howell County, they often went to a place officially called the county welfare farm.
For some, it was a place to work off a court fine in Depression days when cash was harder to come by than 30 days’ time.
For others, it was better than anything they had had out on their own.
For many, it was the end of the line, as they lived out their lives and died, with nowhere to go, and no one -to notify when they were gone.
Just over the lip of a grassy rise from the buildings that still stand on the old welfare home property, the county cemetery sits inside a curve on Howell Co. Rd. 868, about six miles southeast of West Plains.
It is a quiet, peaceful place these days, shaded by a large oak tree and several pines. The wind whispers quietly in the leaves and needles, sounding strangely respectful.
For years after the farm was sold in 1955, the cemetery was forgotten and allowed to grow up in brush and briars. Recently, the county commissioners ordered it cleared and cleaned up so it could be mowed.
The clearing revealed a pathetic little scattered grouping of tombstones, all alike, except for the names. Even some of those are identical, with five stones sharing the name "unknown." Only 26 of the graves are marked. The rest were apparently marked at an earlier time with wooden markers, now long gone. The only marks now are the slight mounds and depressions of identical dimensions, in columns and rows.
Seen in the late afternoon, when shadows are long and help define the contours of the land, the cemetery is apparently full, or almost.
"At one time there was about 60 or 70 people there at the farm, in the late '30s and early '40s," said John Gid Morrision, who served as Howell County Clerk while the farm was still open and who now lives on a farm just down the road, within sight of the cemetery. "The cemetery was for people who lived there at the farm and people who didn't have anywhere else to be buried."
Among those was a man who is listed in county records as a "white male, about 30, supposed to be killed by a train." The record is dated June, 1936, when countless men fitting that description were traveling the country by rail, incognito, looking for work and survival.
Another, recalled by long time West Plains resident Dail Allen, was a reputed "bootlegger" during prohibition days.
"I remember they caught a bootlegger, he put up a fight and they killed him. They buried him down there," Allen said. "I always think of that when I drive by there. I remember they took him to that undertaker's parlor down next to where the library is now. Me and another kid went down there and looked at him. It was kind of a big event in those days. The town was a lot smaller then."
A volume of county records listing activities at the farm between 1927 and 1946 show at least 31 persons as having been buried at the cemetery. None of the names listed correspond with the names on the stones.
A long afternoon spent in the vault where county records are kept revealed at once too little and too much about the farm's former residents.
A woman named America lived at the farm for five years before dying on July 4, 1936.
The body of a man who was buried at the cemetery in 1936 was exhumed and moved to Illinois to be near relatives in 1950.
John T. Matthews, who lived at the farm from 1922 to 1936, signed an affidavit overriding his relatives wishes to claim his body when he died, electing to buried at the farm, near his friends.
Many records after 1939 ended with "Released. Got old age pension." According to documents filed with the patient records, the old age pension at that time amounted to about $25 a month - not much, but enough to get off the farm.
Other records are more pathetic.
"E.S., April through June, had a baby here."
"W.F. Stevens, 68, here a few hours and died. Relatives not none of."
And repeated too often, "No relatives. No one to notify."
They were the county's paupers, explained Buford Skaggs, West Plains, who was presiding judge of Howell County during many years of the farm's operation.
"Before there was Social Security or the old age pension, people had nowhere to go, no home, no food," Skaggs said. "At the farm, they had their own dairy, butchered their own meat, and raised most of their own food. Those that were able to work got out and cut wood, hauled hay and brought in a little cash for the county. They was took good care of. We had people there to cook their meals and wash their clothes for them," he said. "It wasn't a self-supporting deal, but it didn't cost too much to run the place."
And when the people died with nothing, Skaggs explained, the county would bury them.
"We would buy the caskets a dozen or half dozen at a time. We had an arrangement with an undertaker. We kept them down there in a building," he said.
Allen said he remembers the caskets. "I was down there when I was a kid and I remember going In one of those sheds and saw two or three wooden coffins. That'd kind of open your eyes," said Allen, who was acquainted with some of the people who worked at the farm.
Not many had their eyes open to conditions at the farm, according to one county employee who asked not to be identified.
"It was something no one wanted to talk about or think about," he said, adding that for the people who lived at the farm, the best thing that ever happened was when it was closed and sold in 1955.
"They were able to get all those people into nursing homes, where they could get the proper care."
Patient care at the farm, while the best the county could offer, wasn't much, the employee said. Prisoners, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded and the old and abandoned were all lumped together In one place.
"It wasn't a good place," he said. "Cold, wet, those old concrete floors, the cells. It wasn't a place you'd want any of your people to be."