Grayson County Poor Farm

What happens today if a family does not want to care for a severely mentally challenged or disabled child, if an elderly person has no family and cannot meet his or her own basic needs, or if a mother is widowed or has a child out of wedlock and cannot feed her children? In 2011, there were 80 plus federal welfare programs. Numerous nonprofit organizations also help to relieve the pressures of poverty. That was not the case in 19th century America. (1)

The most vulnerable sectors of American society have not changed demographics in its entire history which are children, minorities, the elderly, female-headed families, the mentally and physically disabled, and uneducated/unskilled workers. Americans see these populations as either the deserving poor or the undeserving poor. (2)

The Texas County Poor Farm System

Before the Great Depression, there were no federal relief programs, but severe poverty existed then as it does today. Legal solutions in the 18th century U.S. that dealt with poverty-stricken people evolved from 17th-century British poor laws. A decentralized system emerged. A town or a city owned alms houses and poor houses or poor farms operated by a county offered relief. The 1869 Texas Constitution, Article XII, Section 26 reads:

Each county in the State shall provide, in such manner as may be prescribed by law, a Manuel Labor Poor House, for taking care of, managing, employing and supplying the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants; and under such regulations as the legislature may direct, all persons committing petty offenses in the county may be committed to such Manual Labor Poor House, for correction and employment. The law’s purpose was to avoid hunger but give no comfort.

The enactment of this legislation gave direct responsibility of the poor and minor criminals to each Texas county. It combined care for indigents and petty criminals based on the doctrine of “less eligibility”. This law implied that the people who could receive assistance from the poor houses and farms were lesser humans.

Texas required poor farm recipients to take an oath. When people moved to the poor farm, they swore to their shortage of worldly goods and gave up control of their personal lives and their rights as citizens. Texas established these legal measures to thwart dependence on poor farms. Governments considered poor farm residents as less than human; ergo the Texas poor farm became a human junk pile. (3)

The Grayson County Poor Farm

Our Grayson County Poor Farm was a working farm. No age, race, or other discriminatory practices existed when it came to accepting its residents. If able, the residents worked to assist in managing the daily operations of the poor farm. Its cemetery includes the original Vaden Family Cemetery with possibly more than 1,000 unmarked graves of the poor farm residents. (4)

Grayson County bought its farm from a family named Vaden and established it sometime between 1877 and 1878. The commissioner’s court selected the poor farm superintendents and paid them. The county paid farm expenses and provided clothing, medicine, and doctor visits. The superintendent organized the crops, managed the property, hired help for working the farm if needed, and kept written records. He was also entrusted with fair treatment of the inmates. Texas counties paid their superintendents a good salary. Grayson County paid its second known superintendent, James Madison Weems, $460 annually in 1880 plus food.

The Superintendent’s Wife

Martha Catherine “Kittie” Weems wrote this letter to her sister, Mattie, in December 1880 in anticipation of her family’s move to the poor farm in Grayson County:

Sherman, Texas
Dec. 6th, 1880

My Dear Mattie,

I expect you are looking for a reply to your last letter so I will try and write a few lines tonight if my eyes do not fail me. I have been so busy and it has been so cold and wet that I thought I would wait until I got through with my work before writing. I have quilted five comforts this winter and am almost through with my winter sewing. We are all very well at present. My health has been better for the last few months.

Well Mattie, I know that you will be very much surprised when I tell you that we will move next Monday to the Poor Farm. Jimmie is appointed superintendent of the farm. They pay him four hundred and sixty ($460) dollars and feed the family. We will have a very nice and comfortable home to live in. Jimmie will not have to work. The boys can go to school all year. This is why I consented to go. I do not like the idea of going at all but -- as Jimmie thinks it best -- I will try it this year. I will not have anything to do in the affairs there....

Your Affectionate
Kittie (5)

While Kittie’s letter does not give examples of life on the poor farm, it shows the attitude of citizens towards the poor farm. We do not know how Kittie managed to escape the affairs of the residents and their care.

Poor Farm Inmates

The inmates were listed according to their physical and mental states in the poor farm records. The following are some examples of these records:

Tabitha Searcy, lunatic, December 2, 1878, Denison, Texas.

George M. Blain, idiotic and part of the time insane, April 13, 1882, Sherman.

Nannie Stamford and one child, Sherman, October 2, 1885. Son born to her January 25, 1885, left March 6, 1885, Returned December 11, 1885.

John Kirkpatrick, paralysis, Sherman, May 15, 1885.

Gus Unger, Denison, delirium tremins, left September 2, 1885, returned December 7, 1885.

Deaf and dumb boy, name unknown, Sherman, July 16, 1885. (5)

The Grayson County Poor Farm at its beginning served substantial meals of bread, meat, vegetables, and coffee three times a day: six a.m. breakfast, eleven a.m. dinner, and five p.m. supper. An institution doctor prescribed the diets. 

Between June 1887 and December 31, 1887, the poor farm admitted 123 inmates but released 89. It raised 425 bushels of wheat, 2,500 bushels of oats, and 60 tons of millet. The farm’s expenses for 1887 were $2,387.60. (5)

As time went on, opposing reports of conditions on the poor farm reflected them as good and bad and as spacious and crowded. In March 1889, an inmate named Mr. Howard said that he had arrived in Sherman and taken sick. Because he could not support himself, a judge sent him to the poor farm for treatment and recovery. Upon Mr. Howard’s release, he stated that the treatment of the poor and helpless sickened him and that one man had died of starvation.

In November of 1887, the commissioners elected Allen Boyd as superintendent of the poor farm, and 37 patients resided on it. Mr. Boyd took over in January of 1888. The Brenham Daily Banner of Brenham, Texas, reported on January 19, 1888, that the Grayson County Poor Farm inmates had gone on strike and refused to work unless paid wages.

All of the buildings on the poor farm burned down in 1910 and the county built a two-story brick building for residents. In 1914, conditions on the farm proved intolerable. That same year, Clarence. Yoakum, Ph.D., wrote a book called Care of the Feeble Minded and Insane in Texas and recorded this account of the Grayson County Poor Farm:

One insane in jail at this time, about ten on the county farm and twelve idiots. The idiots crawled about over the floors or sat in their rooms with the only care that one person could give for a short time each day. Several were confined in yards outside in the daytime so they could not run away. One boy, about 17, because he tore his clothes, was kept during the day with his hands strapped behind his back…An epileptic boy…was confined continually in a barred and cement-floored cell…managed to keep from hurting himself very much most of the time by holding the bars when he could…The rooms for the paupers and imbeciles in the main building were clean and pleasant. (6)

In 1917, Edna Gladney and members of the Civic League in Grayson County went to the farm and cleaned it. Gladney then transferred the children living there to the Children’s Home and Aid Society in Ft. Worth. (7)

In With New Poverty and Out With Poor Farms

During the Great Depression, the federal government created programs to help the great numbers of the newly impoverished, and the county poor farms saw their decline begin. New Poverty is the term historians use to define the poverty that began with the Great Depression. The Grayson County Poor Farm closed its doors in the early 1960s and sold most of the land. In 1965, the farm became home to the Shady Oaks Nursing Home. During the construction of Shady Oaks, residents of the poor farm still lived in old shacks on the property. All we have left of the Grayson County Poor Farm today is the four-acre cemetery at the end of Shady Oaks Circle in Sherman. The Grayson County Poor Farm buried residents in wooden caskets and continued to bury paupers after the farm closed in the original Vaden Cemetery. (5)




3. Mauldin, Debbie. The County Poor Farm System in Texas. Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989. Page 169-180


5. Williams, Dusty. The Poor Farm of Grayson County. Self-published.

6. Yoakum, Clarence. Care of the Feeble Minded and Insane in Texas. University of Texas, 2014.

7. McLeRoy, Sherrie S. Texas Adoption Activist Edna Gladney: A Life and Legacy of Love. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.

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