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Before there was Social Security, Beltrami County had its poor farm

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 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).
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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.

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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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.