Hidden History: The poor, the undesirable and the forgotten

Now a private residence, the Osage County Poor Farm once housed the county’s less fortunate.

By Wendi Bevitt

In 1973, Osage County closed an era on how it cared for those unable to provide for themselves, whether they be poor, orphaned, or lacking the physical or mental capabilities to live independently. This institution was known as the Osage County Poor Farm.

Prior to its establishment, there was no set system or institution for this kind of service and so it was left to the communities to care for those facing difficulty.

For its part, the city of Burlingame handled this by reimbursing its citizens who lent out goods and services or provided board in their homes to those in need. This sufficed for a time, but as population grew, there arose a cry for the county to take a more active part in caring for the needy.

In January 1876, more than 150 acres of land was purchased central to the population center of the time. The land chosen was Rice’s Grove near Burlingame, adjacent to the Dragoon Creek, where the first 4th of July celebration was held in 1855. By March, the property was ready to take in homeless residents and by April the separate quarters for those declared insane was prepared.

The poor

The idea was for residents who were able to work to participate in farm activities for which they received payment. The farm had anywhere from 75 to 95 acres under cultivation for corn, wheat, millet or potatoes, as well as a garden and orchard. The farm ground was some of the most fertile in northeast Kansas and crops won awards at the Kansas State Fair. The hogs that were raised received top billing in the Kansas City markets.

The farm had well-stocked pantries brimming with canned goods and cider that had been preserved from its crops. Because of its production, the farm took little to no tax money for its operations.

The superintendent of the farm and his family were full-time caretakers of both the farm and its residents. In 1886, the salary for that position was $45 per month.

Among those first residents were James Cavanaugh, a miner whose legs had been crushed in 1878 during a mining accident in a Burlingame mine; John Swartz a deaf, mute; and Daniel Prophet, an old gentleman who survived bondage in slavery prior to the Civil War.

Any necessary care for the residents was provided for by a local doctor and ranged from treatment of minor ailments to a 1889 surgery that removed 3 inches of a man’s diseased hip bone.

Those among the homeless would come for a stay until they earned enough money to make their own way or longer. “Aunt Susan” Strong, an elderly woman of Osage City, was living independently on her small plot of land in town with chickens and fruit trees and income collected from her talents as a fortune teller. A fire claimed her house and she found refuge within the walls of the farm.

Others like Arthur “Wee” Kelly, a miner amongst other things, would come to stay at the farm during the cold winter months and then would move on when the weather changed.

The undesirable

Residents deemed insane were only those seen as not being a hazard to themselves or others and only those with a chance of being “restored” to society. The farm would take in more severe cases and transfer them to the state hospital in Osawatomie.

The original housing for the insane consisted of 10 cells and one common room. Many times due to lack of room, the cells would be shared.

The residents of the farm were not limited to those from the local community. The winter after the farm opened, a French woman was found under a haystack in a local field. She was about 50 years old, spoke broken English, her feet and hands injured from exposure to the cold. She was taken to the farm for care. When they finally found a way to communicate with her, she spoke of her husband and children and Nebraska. Whether she found her way home again is lost to history.

A similar story is that of a young man from Erie, Pennsylvania, who appeared lying face down in field near Barclay screaming and praying. He was taken to the farm, where he was given food and lodging. His father was sent for and took the wandering boy home.

The forgotten

The farm would take in orphans temporarily. If not collected by the family, ads were posted in the local paper announcing their availability for adoption. Any orphans that were not adopted would be sent to the Society for the Friendless in Topeka. The Society would find homes for these children and then inform them of their familial roots when they reached the age of 21.

Enoch Markley and his wife were among the families who took in an orphan from the farm. The Markleys found themselves in need of the farm’s services years later when they were too old to take care of themselves.

Not all people that were brought to the farm necessarily needed its services, and the ease of depositing a burdensome relative appealed to some. One elderly woman deposited at the farm pined for her son and walked to the end of the road each day looking for his return. Another wife was left with promises by her husband to retrieve her after two weeks, and she was still waiting for him to take her home after two years.

The first building burned in a fire that claimed two lives in February 1917. The next building was brick and had the capacity for 30 residents. It was completed in the fall of the same year.

Tommy Gill originally came to stay at the farm around 1920 with his father, Thomas Sr. Tommy was blind, either from a lump of coal that struck him in the mines in 1915, or smallpox that afflicted him in 1918. His stay at the farm was periodic, at times he would live on his own supporting himself by making brooms or hammocks, or he would return to the farm with one of his jobs being to pull the weeds from the sidewalk cracks in Burlingame.

The farm changed from its original function in 1967 when state laws were modified. The main building was reopened as a nursing home until the last of the residents were moved on at its closing in 1973. The building is now a private residence.

Tommy was one of the last to reside at the farm and would tell stories of the former inmates, keeping their memories alive. Tommy died in 1976, the same year the property containing the farm buildings was sold. There is only one book of records, from 1939 to 1941, known of those that lived there during its almost 100 years of operation, and Tommy is no longer around to keep their memory alive. The main building stands as a last memorial to those who passed through its doors.

Editor’s note: The property where the Osage County Poor Farm was located is privately owned and the main building serves as a residence. For more information about this story, contact Osage County News at [email protected].


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.



6 Responses to Hidden History: The poor, the undesirable and the forgotten

  1. Nadine says:

    My Mother was born and lived in Burlingame for years in fact she was a telephine operator there. She was from the Graham Family. Lived upon west hill in a Brick house. Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lee says:

    We as girls outs went out a Christmas time also to carol and bring small gifts and cards. Probably in the early 70’s. I remember the residents as sweet people

  3. AWBW says:

    This is a great story….very interesting.

  4. Neva Smith says:

    I never knew about this.

  5. Shirley Darby says:

    Great research! Interesting history. I wonder if any written history of the Shawnee County Poor Farm exists.

  6. Debbie says:

    I remember when our 4-H group, Carbondale Rustlers, would go over there before Christmas and sing to the residents. We also took small gifts for under the tree. That was probably the late 1960's.

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