From 1883 to 1949, Denton County operated the County Poor Farm. The Denton County Poor Farm consisted of 347 acres located off of Mingo Road, between Laney and Collins Road in Denton, Texas. The land cared for by Denton County offered refuge for paupers unable to care for themselves. The number of paupers living on the poor farm ranged from 6 to 17.
In Denton County, Commissioners Court held the responsibility of overseeing the poor farm, and the court appointed a poor farm superintendent to a two-year term. In this role, the superintendent insured that those living on the poor farm were fed and clothed. The superintendent also managed the farm and kept records of purchases, and the sales of produce and livestock. The superintendent lived on the property, and the wife of the superintendent was expected to wash, cook, and sew for the residents. Each year the commissioners court would visit the poor farm for inspection.
What was a Poor Farm?
The idea of the poor farm or poorhouse stemmed from England’s seventeenth century poor laws, which made the English government responsible for taking care of the poor. The law established in 1601 categorized three classes of the poor: those who were vagrant and deserved punishment, those who were able-bodied and could be put to work, and those who were distressed and need a place to live (like an almshouse). The English colonists brought this practice with them when they settled in America. While they believed poverty was disgraceful, they also believed that caring for the poor would help maintain order in society.
In the 1830s, states across the U.S. adopted the system of almshouses but referred to them as poorhouses, which provided homes for people who could no longer care for themselves. In large cities, local governments established poorhouses in the city center and could provide able-bodied residents with work in factories. In rural areas, including much of Texas, poor farms were created as a place for paupers to live and work on farmland.
In 1869, the State of Texas decided that the county system would take responsibility for paupers, which led many counties to establish poor farms where these residents could live and work to support themselves.
Excerpt from a U.S. Government REPORT summarizing various state poor laws in 1904
|TEXAS: The County Commissioners have the duty to provide for the support of paupers, resident of their counties, who are unable to take care of themselves, to send indigent sick to county hospitals where such are established, and to bury the pauper dead. The commissioners may, by contract, bind a county in any reasonable sum for pauper support, and are authorized to employ physicians to the poor, etc. The almshouses are under the management of the county commissioners.
Except for these general provisions, there are no special statutes governing in detail poor relief and the management of almshouses.
Source: “Poorhouse History by State: Texas,” http://www.poorhousestory.com/poorhouses_in_texas.htm
For the paupers who lived on poor farms, they gave up many personal freedoms and some of their rights as citizens. The state required that paupers give an oath swearing that they were in dire need of assistance, and becoming a resident of the poor farm was their only option. Paupers also lost their right to vote. The state put these measures in place to discourage applicants from applying and to keep numbers low at the poor farms. Many of the residents were elderly, including many widows, and had no family available to take care of them.
Denton County Poor Farm
On August 21, 1883, Mr. John Woods and his wife Amanda deeded the land for the poor farm to Denton County at a cost of $11.13 an acre. The land proved to be profitable farmland for the county. Over the years, the poor farm superintendent and his team cultivated cotton, wheat, hay, and corn. However many of the residents were ill and unable to help with the farming. In a 1910 Pilot Point Post Signal article, the report of the Denton County Poor Farm states, “An average of ten paupers were cared for through the year, almost none of whom was able to be of any assistance in running the farm.” While the residents of the poor farm were unable to work, inmates were sometimes sent to work the land.
From the 1890s to the 1910s, the Denton Record-Chronicle and the Pilot Point Post-Signal featured many reports on the Denton County Poor Farm. Including the list of expenditures and accounts of positive visits by the county commissioners. However, the happenings during the last three decades of the poor farm are harder to piece together.
One of the last public mentions of the Denton County Poor Farm comes from a 1935 article in the University of North Texas’ The Campus Chat, which states that young members of the First Presbyterian Church made monthly visits to the residents of the poor farm to sing hymns and provide any assistance.
After the Great Depression, the federal government became involved in providing aid and changes to public welfare. In 1935, Texas passed the Old-Age Assistance Law, or the Social Security Act which ensured that persons over the age of 65 received monthly payment from the government. However, this law excluded residents of the poor farm, which led to the closing of the Denton County Poor Farm in 1949.
In 1990, the Denton County Historical Commission gathered information about the known graves at the County Poor Farm Cemetery. They reported that the cemetery was destroyed by property owners who built over the graveyard. We do not know the total number of people buried in the cemetery but from Funeral Home Records, we have this list:
William T. Boyd
Mrs. Alf McConnell
Mrs. Angie Ragan
Neta A. West
Much of the history of the Denton County Poor Farm and the residents who lived there remain a mystery. We have been able to piece together some information based on census records and newspaper reports. Several Texas counties have discovered new findings on the county poor farm, including Kauffman and Grayson Counties. We hope one day that we can uncover more history of the people who lived and worked on the Denton County poor farm.
Files on the “County Poor Farm” can be found in the Research Room at the Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum.
The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989 – April, 1990. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101213/m1/209/
University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History
Poorhouse History, http://www.poorhousestory.com/history.htm