The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 10 April 2013. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
Have you ever heard of a "Poor Farm"?
There was one in Bullitt County before "old-age pensions" and "Social Security" came to be.
Most of us now living have become so accustomed to social security programs, that it is hard to imagine that not so long ago there was virtually no help at all for those in need.
Certainly none required, except for the mercies of those who chose to help.
As quoted by Bullitt County Genealogical Society President, Daniel Buxton, who has done extensive research on our local farm, "Poor Farms were county or town-run residences where paupers (mainly elderly and disabled people) were supported at public expense. They were common in the United States beginning in the middle of the 1800s, and declined in use after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935."
Bullitt County Fiscal Court started its County Poor Farm with the purchase of land from C.L. Croan on April 10, 1903.
That same year, Fiscal Court voted unanimously "to build 2 box houses for White & Colored Poor Houses." They also built a corn-crib, meat house, and a coal house, and decided to hire "a married man" to manage the farm.
Where was this "Poor Farm" in Bullitt County?
You probably know the place.
Today, the intersection of Interstate 65 and Highway 245 cuts the land into three pieces still owned by the county. The County Fairgrounds leases one corner; Southeast Fire Department leases part of another corner, along with the county animal shelter; and a third corner is designated as a possible site for a new college.
But of course, all of that land was in one piece before Interstate 65 came along, when it was all the County Poor Farm.
Joe Raley, who still lives nearby, remembers it very well.
He was the caretaker of the farm for many years, as was his father before him, for over thirty-five years.
Joe's father, John Raley, became caretaker of the Poor Farm in 1942, moving his family into the caretaker's home that was built on the farm.
World War II was raging by then, and Joe was drafted into the Army, as was most boys in the country at that time. Joe remembers meeting at Shepherdsville with a group of other young men from the area to go off to war. He was in the invasion force on D-Day, and, except for one leave, stayed on the front lines until the war was over, serving as a sergeant in the 1106th Engineer Combat Group. He has an impressive collection of photographs from his travels in the war.
But back to the Poor Farm.
Joseph Raley literally came back to the farm after the war, eventually becoming caretaker himself. The Raleys paid rent to the county for use of the land to raise crops and livestock, and to live in a house on the farm, built for that purpose. When the county judge would send someone to the poor farm, the Judge would take off a portion of the rent owed by the Raleys. The Raleys were, in return, obligated to feed, bath, and generally take care of the people. A doctor would come by sometimes, when needed.
A Fiscal Court order stated in January 8, 1942, "The renter to take care of the paupers, feed them, furnish fuel for them. County to furnish clothing and bed clothing and they live in the county property, renter to do all washing and keep paupers clean."
Residents (sometimes called "inmates") at the farm were mostly old folks. There were sometimes families with children, but not often.
Charles Shelton recently told me about his memories of the farm, remembering a group of several people staying in one of the houses. "Most couldn't do much," he said. They couldn't get around much, and "had long-since told all the stories they knew, so they mostly just sat there."
Joe Raley remembers one elderly woman who couldn't get around, except by scooting around the room in her chair. Though doing their best for the times, these were hardly the modern care homes of today.
When the woman died, she was buried at the small cemetery that had developed there.
According to Daniel Buxton, the cemetery had started as a family graveyard that predated the Poor Farm, and then was used for the "Paupers," as the residents were called in the censuses, when they died. The county would also bury "John Does" in the graveyard, such as unidentified transients killed on the train tracks, or people who just had no family and nowhere else to be buried.
As many as twenty-two people at a time lived on the Poor Farm, but that was before Joe Raley's time. With the creation of old age pensions by the government, the number of Poor Farm residents decreased as "Homes" started coming into existence that were willing to take the pension money for their care.
Finally no one was there except the caretaker, and the Poor Farm was no longer needed. The county rented the manager's house for a while until it burned down. In 1953, the county started leasing the old residents' buildings as boarding houses for a short time.
In 1954, some of the farm was sold for a right-of-way for the new "Kentucky Turnpike" toll road, later to become Interstate 65.
Meanwhile, Joe Raley was still renting the land to farm on. "Land doesn't come better than that flat land around where the County Fairgrounds is today," says Joe.
In 1959, the state bought more land to add access ramps to the expressway.
In 1981, it was widened still more, requiring the old graveyard to be moved. Harold Dawson, who was a young worker for the state highway department at the time, says they almost missed the graveyard, finally coming across a few small stones and noticing grave depressions in the ground. The residents of the graveyard were moved to Cedar Grove Methodist Church Cemetery. Only one of the original gravestones was moved. The state paid for forty-five small granite markers to be placed at the new gravesite, stating simply,
UNKNOWN Bullitt Co. Farm Cem.
Much of the hillside, where the graveyard had been, was removed to make way for the southbound access ramp.
There remains in that area, an odd rock-and-concrete building that people ask me about from time to time. Some people refer to it as the "mystery shed" or, as Joe Raley calls it, "The Dynamite House." Used for many things over the years, including a shelter for hogs, Joe thinks that the solid little shed was originally built around 1937 by the WPA as a place to store dynamite used for local roadwork, etc.
It now stands as the only structure original to the old Poor Farm.
Joe Raley continued renting some of the land to farm on until 1977, but it was becoming less and less worthwhile.
In 1980, the newly reforming County Fairboard leased a large portion of the farm for a county fairground.
In April, 1981, the Pine Creek Forest Fire District, later to become the Southeast Fire Department, obtained a ninety-nine year lease for some land where the houses once were, to build a firehouse. A new county animal shelter was developed behind that.
Talk began about building a new college campus on the remaining northwest corner.
And memory began to fade about the old Poor Farm, and why that land is owned by the county in the first place.
Joe Raley knows.
Now you do too.
Copyright 2013 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.