Leaders examine Johnson County Poor Farm past, plan for future
County hopes to develop master plan as groups continue farm work
IOWA CITY — Scott Koepke finds little pieces of someone else’s life story every day.
So when Grow: Johnson County workers uncovered an old toy wooden yo-yo in the dirt early on an August Wednesday morning while they were harvesting vegetables, it was just like any other day on the old Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum for the education director — a perfect mix of new life and history.
The county used the Poor Farm from 1855 to as late as the 1970s to provide care for the mentally ill and other “poor unfortunates” such as orphaned children or soldiers returning from war. Now, Koepke said the poor farm has come full circle because it’s now helping Johnson County residents again, just in a new and different way.
The Johnson County Historical Society currently is working to educate residents about the farm’s history at the same time Grow: Johnson County, a not-for-profit formed to farm the land, is harvesting its first crop to help those who are food insecure.
But this work seems to be just the beginning of the Poor Farm’s rebirth as the Johnson County Board of Supervisors is developing a master plan to clearly define the future of the space. The Board chose HBK Engineering as its consultant on the first part of its master plan in its work session this past Wednesday.
“I don’t think you can manage the land without interpreting the history,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said.
“Our county really loves its history.” — Alexandra Drehman
During this period, all Iowa counties were establishing poor farms with the thought that work and fresh air would benefit those who were struggling, especially with mental health. Asylum patients would “compensate” the county for their care by working on the farm to the best of their ability. This way, the farm could be self-sustaining.
While that rationale may be primitive, Alexandra Drehman, executive director of the Johnson County Historical Society, said it was “a positive step” in mental health care history. The county had a major investment in farm residents, she said, because at its height it was the county’s single largest expenditure.
“That’s a big piece of history that sometimes people don’t think about,” Drehman said. “The property and the buildings are a piece of our history, not just for our county but for the state of Iowa and the United States.”
At that time, the Johnson County Poor Farm, 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City, was made up of 31 structures. Today, two barns, the asylum, some smaller sheds and a recently rediscovered unmarked cemetery remain on the property.
A portion of the farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, which will help ensure its existence long term, Drehman said. She said the historical society gives about two or three tours of the asylum per week and curiosity only has increased since Grow: Johnson County began its work on the land.
Johnson County’s is one of only a few poor farms remaining in the state.
“We respect the history and we want to share it with the community,” Drehman said.
“Everything's a lesson.” — Scott Koepke
Knowing it had an immense resource in the farm land that was usually just leased out to farmers, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors put out a request for proposals in 2015 to use some of the land for food-related projects.
Grow: Johnson County, formed by representatives of various local organizations such as Table to Table and the Coralville Food Pantry for this specific purpose, was granted a five-year lease for two acres on the Poor Farm. Last year, the organization planted cover crops to prepare the land for this year’s harvest.
This season, Grow: Johnson County is farming all types of organic produce from potatoes and tomatoes to melons and eggplants. While the small farm may not relieve a lot of hunger in the county, John Boller, executive director of the Coralville pantry, said it will help provide more nutritious food — often too expensive for pantries — to food-insecure residents.
“We see this as an opportunity to improve the health of food-insecure people,” Boller said. “There’s a lot of potential.”
In just its first year, Grow: Johnson County is expected to produce between 20 and 25 thousand pounds of food for area food banks. The organization already is seeking to expand to a few more acres next season, Boller said.
But the food professionals at Grow: Johnson County can’t do it all alone — that’s where educational opportunities come into play.
This summer, a Youth Empowered to Serve, or YES, summer camp of 10th- and 11th-graders worked on the farm. Koepke, who is in charge of the education piece of Grow: Johnson County, said their education went beyond gardening — the teens learned about healthy eating, the environment and basic job skills.
“Education goes way beyond the soil and the food for me,” Koepke said.
Koepke said in the coming years, he hopes to develop a peer mentor program — in which students who worked on the farm the previous summer can come back and lead new students the next summer. He also hopes to start plots that various community groups could be responsible for tending.
“We’d be growing growers,” Koepke said.
“This is really a sacred space.” — Scott Koepke
In an effort to ensure a future that can match the farm’s past, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors hopes to develop a master plan. The board secured a grant from the State Historical Society’s Certified Local Government program to help pay for phase one of the project, which should cost just over $18,000. This phase includes the development of an action plan to prioritize projects, identify potential partners and provide “a road map for future actions.”
The final grant report is due at the end of June 2017. This process will identify short-term projects, ones that could be completed in one to five years, as well as long-term goals for the next 20 years.
“Protecting the historic integrity of what we have there is critical, so I want to make sure that happens,” Supervisor Rod Sullivan said.
Koepke said Grow: Johnson County is preserving the history in its own way. The group is growing the same crops that would’ve been grown 100 years ago on the land, he noted.
Drehman said the historical society’s role in the project is simply to help interpret the history for the county. She said it’s essential to maintain the Poor Farm because so many other counties have lost theirs.
“Once your history is gone, it’s gone,” Drehman said.
“The possibilities are endless.” — Scott Koepke
Everyone involved in the Johnson County Poor Farm seems to have his or her own ideas for how the farm can better serve the Johnson County residents.
For Drehman, she said she hopes to develop a walking tour of all the historic buildings. Rettig said she’d like to see the creation of trails through the farm and the restoration of the barns, all to get more visitors to the site.
In addition to his education initiatives, Koepke already has identified where wetlands could be created in hopes of improving biodiversity on the farm. He also could envision wildflowers, herbs, bees for honey, an orchard for fruits and nuts, a hoop house used for growing late season vegetables and even animals such as goats or chickens for eggs on the property.
However, what exactly the poor farm will look like in the future still is unclear. Once HBK Engineering receives a signed contract from the board, it can begin to perform a site analysis and gather public input before writing the action plan.
Now that the master plan process has started, community leaders are simply left to wait with their ideas and embrace the history.
“Big things are going to happen,” Drehman said.