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Beltrami County Poor Farm

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Beltrami County Historical Society
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Main building, Beltrami County Poor Farm

Beltrami County Poor Farm main building with a team of two horses, ca. 1929–1930. Photo donated by Clara Gratzek, a former cook at the farm. From the Beltrami County Poor Farm records (State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul).

The Beltrami County Poor Farm provided shelter and care for elderly and disabled people from 1902 until 1935, when old-age assistance programs replaced the poor farm system.

In 1901, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners decided to purchase land suitable for a farm complex that would care for the county’s poor citizens. While large cities in Minnesota (and across the US) supported poor houses and houses of charity, rural areas established poor farms and tried to make them well run and self-sustaining. Beltrami County was one of the sixty-three Minnesota counties, out of a total of eighty-seven, that maintained a poor farm at some point in its history.

Beltrami County purchased the property on August 2, 1901, from Rien Kilgard in Section 14 of Bemidji Township, directly east of the city limits. It advertised for bids for the main building and a second small building for quarantine and hospital purposes in September 1901, and the buildings were erected soon afterwards.

On January 9, 1902, bids were opened for the position of farm superintendent. H. J. Armstrong, the lowest bidder, was appointed; his salary was fixed at $50 per month, starting on the first day of January 1902. This salary included the services of a Mrs. Armstrong as cook and matron. Neighbors hired by the superintendent often helped with outside work; residents who were able to perform labor did so and helped keep the farm functioning.

The Beltrami County Poor Farm was run with great economy. It consisted of a house, a four-story barn, a granary, a pest house, a smoke house, and a root cellar on thirty-two acres of land. The pest house was a separate building and housed people with contagious diseases, particularly diphtheria, smallpox, and typhoid. Epidemics that originated in lumber camps—homes for many farm residents—were a common concern. After the logging era passed, the farm formally became known as the Detention Hospital.

The farm included a “paupers’” cemetery on a two-acre tract of land set aside for that purpose. Beltrami County paid for coffins as well as the services of an undertaker and a gravedigger, who placed an upright board with the name of the deceased and date of death at the head of each grave.

There were three periods in the history of the Beltrami County Poor Farm. The first, during which the farm was under the governance of county commissioners, lasted from 1901 until 1908. The second began in 1909, when the county abandoned the county system of caring for the poor in favor of the township system. This involved shifting the cost of relief administration from county boards to townships. The city of Bemidji then leased the farm from 1909–1914. When farm’s main building burned on March 10, 1914, its residents were moved to various locations throughout the city. At that time, there were nine residents (commonly referred to as inmates).

The third period began in 1920, when the county constructed a new building. It opened on April 1, 1920, with a new name: the Beltrami County Infirmary. At the time, it was considered one of the most modern institutions in the Northwest. Locally, it was still referred to as the poor farm.
After the Social Security Act mandated old-age assistance at a state level in 1935, several Minnesota counties closed their poor houses and disposed of the properties. Ten of them, including Beltrami County, followed a different course of action: selling their poor farms to private buyers to remove them from the legal category of “public institution.” After Beltrami County leased its farm to Arthur Spears, it was no longer regarded as a poor house, and the resident population of the farm quickly grew. In 1937, Arthur Spears bought much of the property, and it became a private facility.

As decades passed, the farm’s cemetery became a pasture. Grave markers rotted or were lost, and in 1967, Beltrami County sold a portion of the property to a private owner. In 1979, however, it exchanged land deeds with the owner to regain ownership. The land was cleared, fenced, and once again identified as a cemetery.

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Beltrami County Poor Farm records, 1901–1942
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Superintendent’s annual (1931–1937) and monthly (1904–1908, 1931–1937) reports, financial records (1925–1931), furnishings inventory (undated, 1924–1942), list of inmates dead and discharged (1920–1929), proposed physicians fees (1920–1937) and report on medical services rendered to the county and poor farm (1930, 1936), photographs and miscellany, and poor farm record books (1901–1909, 1920–1937). The latter include inmate registers, a 1926 diagram of the poor farm, and expenditure register (1924–1935), and a register of articles sold (1903–1909).

Birth and death records, 1934–1953
Bemidji Township (Beltrami County)
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Includes burial/removal permits, 1943–1953. Records containing information relating to adoptions and illegitimate births are restricted for 100 years. Birth records less than 100 years old must be inspected by library staff to prevent inappropriate disclosure of confidential information. Please consult library staff for more information.

Birth and death register, 1904–1916
Nymore (Beltrami County)
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Single volume of records containing information relating to births and deaths recorded in Nymore. Records containing information relating to adoptions and illegitimate births are restricted for 100 years. Birth records less than 100 years old must be inspected by library staff to prevent inappropriate disclosure of confidential information. Please consult library staff for more information.

County commissioners’ reports
Beltrami County Administration Building, Bemidji
Description: County commissioners’ reports in bound ledger books.

Death certificates, 1908–2001 [microform]
Minnesota Department of Health
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Death certificates and, occasionally, other documents containing information on deaths that occurred in Minnesota during the years 1908-2001.

"Beltrami County Infirmary Opened Doors April 1st." April 9, 1920, Bemidji Daily Pioneer.

Fredricks, Mrs. Otto, Ed Lindell, and Stone Johnson. “Round Table Discussion of Early Days in Solway.” Manuscript Collection, Beltrami County History Center, Bemidji.

Gunderson, Dan. “A History of the Poorfarm.” Minnesota Public Radio, July 29, 2002.
http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200207/29_gundersond_poorfarm-m/history.shtml

Keaveny, Muriel. “The Poor Farm.” Midwest Buyline, October 29, 2005.

―—— . “Former Cook Sheds Light on Bemidji Poor Farm.” Bemidji Pioneer, November 8, 2005.

―—— . “The Poor Farm.” Midwest Buyline, December 31, 2005.

―—— . “Poor Farm Holds Memories for Some.” Bemidji Pioneer, January 10, 2006.

―—— . “Bemidji Poor Farm Destroyed by Fire in 1914.” Bemidji Pioneer, February 14, 2006.

―—— . “The Poor Farm.” Midwest Buyline, April 1, 2006.

―—— . “Poor Farm Barn was Important Building.” Bemidji Pioneer, May 9, 2006.

―—— . “Poorhouses Labeled ‘Worthy’ and ‘Unworthy’ Poor People.” Bemidji Pioneer, May 9, 2006.

McClure, Ethel. More Than a Roof. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1968.

McKeig, Cecelia Wattles. The Poor Fund, the Poor Farm, and the Paupers Cemetery. Brainerd, MN: Self-published, 2012.

Patient register, 1916–1948
Lake Julia Sanatorium (Beltrami County)
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Includes records of patient admissions and discharges.

Register of deaths, 1897–1953, and coroners’ reports
Beltrami County Administration Building, Bemidji
Description: Records relating to deaths recorded in Beltrami County.

"Short Announcements." March 17, 1914, Bemidji Daily Pioneer.
(researcher's note: The relevant material is on the front page, 4 paragraphs up from bottom on farthest right column.)

Travis, Ethel. “Notes on Early Tenstrike.” North Country 1, no. 2 (1973): 31.

Tweten, Emil. Interview. Manuscript Collection, Beltrami County History Center, Bemidji.

Related Images

Main building, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Main building, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Map of layout of Beltrami County Poor Farm
Map of layout of Beltrami County Poor Farm
Building A, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Building A, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Pest House, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Pest House, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Barn, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Barn, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Main building and barn, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Main building and barn, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Main building, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Main building, Beltrami County Poor Farm
Two Beltrami County Poor Farm staff
Two Beltrami County Poor Farm staff
Detail of Bemidji plat map
Detail of Bemidji plat map

Turning Point

After years of closure due to a fire, the Beltrami County Poor Farm reopens as the Beltrami County Infirmary on April 1, 1920.

Chronology

1901

In August, Beltrami County purchases thirty-two acres of land for a poor farm.

1902

In January, H. J. Armstrong is appointed the poor farm’s superintendent at a salary of fifty dollars per month. A “paupers’” cemetery is established on a two-acre tract of land.

1909

Beltrami County begins to administer relief to the poor through the township system.

1914

The farm closes after its main building is damaged by fire on March 10.

1920

Beltrami County reopens the farm, which includes a new building, as the Beltrami County Infirmary.

1935

Beltrami County leases the farm property to Arthur Spears.

1937

The property becomes a private facility.

1967

Beltrami County sells a portion of the cemetery to a private owner.

1979

Beltrami County regains the deed to the cemetery, which it restores and re-fences.