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History: Poor Farm Took In Marin’s Homeless

From 1880 to 1963, Marin County operated a farm, hospital and cemetery for the care of the poor in Lucas Valley.

Time was that Marin County cared for its homeless population by providing a residence, a hospital and a cemetery. The Marin County Poor Farm, Hospital and Cemetery, tucked against the hills just north of Lucas Valley Road, served Marin County’s poor for over 80 years.

 In 1880, Marin County’s Board of Supervisors voted to establish a county farm to house and care for the ill and indigent elderly. They purchased the land, 94,118 acres, from John Lucas for $5716.46 and appointed Dr. A.W. Taliaferro visiting physician. 

Early buildings included two “pest houses,” for patients with contagious diseases and their families. With the residence and working dairy farm, the county maintained a cemetery for those that died indigent or without remaining family. County taxes paid for burial of the poor.

A report from the Marin Journal of March 9, 1893 describes a visit to the facility:

“The farm consists of nearly one hundred acres, much of the soil being level and exceedingly rich. About thirty acres are in cultivation. There is a small orchard which raises an abundance of apples and some prunes. The apples and prunes are dried and are consumed by the inmates of the farm…Much hay is raised on the farm, and quite a quantity of vegetables.

“The dairy was sweet and clean. In one corner were a dozen rolls of butter, carefully put up in regulation style. The inmates have all the fresh bread and butter they want three times a day. They have meat in some form twice a day. Many of them are old and toothless and the meat is frequently served in the form of stews or hash," which was easy for residents to chew.

Initially only the supervisors and the county physician recommended persons to the facility. The only requirements for entry were a year’s presence in the county and proof of need. Later any physician or social agency could place someone in the facility.

More details are provided in the Sausalito News of January 19, 1901 on the quarterly costs of running the Poor Farm. The article lists the farm’s assets, including  “four horses, six cows, three heifers, one calf, one bull, four hogs, a farm wagon, spring cart, dump cart, mowing machine, sulky rake, two plows, two sets harnesses, buck rake, two harrows, a roller, fire hose and cart and twenty-eight tons of hay. Butter was sold to the amount of 251 pounds, one cow and two hogs were slaughtered, $52.60 was received for the butter, hogs and hide sold.”

The dairy continued operations until California state sanitary codes for pasteurization forced it out of business.

Over the years, the public’s attention was drawn to Poor Farm’s administration. In 1939, County Auditor Leon de Lisle called the farm a “political cesspool,” and a citizen’s committee was formed, headed by Mrs. William Kent, wife of one of Marin’s most prominent citizens.

Vera Schultz, Marin’s first woman supervisor, states in her oral history for the University of California's Bancroft Library,  “It became the custom of the board (of supervisors) to meet out there regularly in order to keep tabs on conditions at the County Farm.”

By the mid-1950s, state inspectors found that the two-story main hospital building failed earthquake standards. In 1959 plans drawn for a new one-story facility with 175 beds, but it was not funded. In 1963 the patients were transferred, and in 1994 the buildings were torn down to make way for 80 units of senior housing.

The buildings are gone, and signs of the cemetery are hard to find. The grave markers, coffee cans filled with concrete and a numbered tag, are covered with grass.  Yet the names of the indigent who were buried there are not totally forgotten. They are listed in the archives of the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Library. 

History has much to teach us. Although the County Poor Farm was far from a perfect solution to poverty, it did provide the needy with a home, food, medical care and burial.  Can we say we're doing as well today?

In the modern era, each year the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy holds a memorial procession to honor the people who have died on the streets of Marin. Names of the deceased are read and acknowledged so that they will not be forgotten. The 14th annual Memorial Procession for Homeless will be held this summer.

janna nikkola March 04, 2011 at 06:08 PM
It's too bad we no longer have such a facility in Marin County and elsewhere in the country. Certainly a roof over their heads, beds, regular meals, medical care a decent burial are more than we offer homeless and indigent people today -- and we probably spend far more on homelessness than it would cost to fund a Poor Farm or a Poor House. (Growing up, my parents often talked about a "Poor House" where homeless and indigent people went when they had no other place to go.) There are many abandoned buildings and other facilities in Marin County that might serve this purpose, if only we had the will to put such a plan in place. I suspect the issue of violating someone's rights would enter in, since we could not force anyone to go to and live in such a facility and for those homeless people who have drug and alcohol problems, living in a residential facility of any kind is abhorrent to them, so we continue to fund their habits with cash.
Cheryl Longinotti March 05, 2011 at 12:53 AM
Interesting that the Marin Journal article from 1893 refers to the residents as inmates. Has usage of that word changed over the century or did it imply, even then, that residents were required to stay on the farm? I'm also curious as to the current location of the 80 units of senior housing.
Chris Highland March 05, 2011 at 02:24 AM
Thank you for uncovering our more innovative history. As the interfaith chaplain in the jails and on the streets for many years I, like many others, dreamed of such a place. It's time for Back to the Future here! Begin with a full renovation of the County ("Honor") Farm to create a model for compassionate, restorative justice.
Marilyn L. Geary March 05, 2011 at 03:19 AM
The term ‘inmate’ was used frequently in the early news articles about the poor farm, but that did not mean that the residents were legally confined there. An archaic meaning of “inmate” is a person who lives with others in the same house. From the Jan. 19, 1901 Sausalito News article: “There were 30 men and two women there October Ist. Eight were admitted during the quarter, eight left and two died, leaving thirty on January Ist. The youngest was thirty-four, the oldest ninety-one, all but six being over fifty-eight. Three are natives of California, three of Germany, and one each of New York, Maryland, Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Belgium, Chili(sic), Switzerland, Denmark and Greece.” The Marin Journal of March 18, 1838 also mentions inmates: “For the past several years, the inmates have averaged about 100, the total capacity for housing is about 135…There are no pioneers of note, Mrs. Isaac Shaver whose husband was a pioneer lumber man of San Rafael, being the only possible exception.” Later reports mention "inmates" climbing the hills over to Marinwood to buy refreshments. They could get kicked out for disorderly conduct. The 80-unit senior housing is called Rotary Valley Senior Village, http://www.bridgehousing.com/Rotary, and is located on Jeannette Prandi Way, at the hub of the old dairy farm and hospital site.
Marilyn L. Geary March 05, 2011 at 03:37 AM
Yes, right across the freeway from the old Marin County Poor Farm sits the Marin County "Honor" Farm on Smith Ranch Road. Renovated it would make an ideal spot to shelter those in need. Thank you for the work you do, Chris.
Marilyn L. Geary March 05, 2011 at 03:46 AM
Yes, it is shameful for one of the wealthiest counties in the nation to leave people on the streets who want and need shelter. It is a question of political will. Some people without homes have severe mental illness and suffer from a condition in which they do not recognize that they are ill. Those people may refuse treatment and can end up in jail or worse. We need creative and humane solutions since the system is not working.

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