Winnebago County Poor Farm

In the mid 1800’s Winnebago County realized the need to deal with the issues of those people who were not able to support themselves and those deemed insane. Their solution was to develop a working farm that would be sustained by its own crops grown by the people housed at the farm. The Winnebago County Board of Supervisors voted to look for available land for purchase in 1853.  It was decided to buy the farm of John DeGroot located on Elmwood Road. The need for housing was a problem almost immediately when a cholera outbreak filled the small farmhouse to capacity. The County Board decided to move the house to land located on North Main Street at the present day site of the River Bluff Nursing Home.

This was a time when services for the mentally ill consisted of confining them, not caring for them. The conditions under which they lived was no better than if they were animals. During warm weather, the completely insane were kept in a “stockade” that was open to the elements. During inclement weather and colder temperatures, they were penned in cells that were placed near the kitchen wall. When the temperatures rose, the stench that came from these inmates was “unhealthy and unbearable.”

In the fall of 1856, there were 49 people served by the farm during the year and eight of the residents died. It was decided that the county would place a “potter’s field” cemetery in back of the property.  At first, only the inmates who passed away were laid to rest behind the building. Later it would be expanded to include unidentified transients, suicides and those who could not afford a “proper funeral.”

In the fall of 1861, the farm served 39 persons, six of whom were insane. Three of these had to be confined. Wadley Favor was superintendent of the farm during this time. The Winnebago County Board of Supervisors would arrange annual visits to the home to make sure the “clients” were properly cared for. These visits were usually a big deal and held with “much fanfare.”

The County Board granted permission in 1863 for an annex and the next year a 22 foot square outbuilding was built with an 8 foot ceiling.  It housed, according to the records, “three insane persons, two raving lunatics, and one entirely naked man whom it is impossible to keep clothed.” Other reports from 1863 state that the main building housed 36 inmates. The farm was by this time self-sustaining, raising its own crops and livestock.

In 1873, a newspaper article includes a description of the poor house at this time: “a frame building that had two stories 26 by 40 feet that housed 21 cells and a bathroom.” An article in 1875 stated that the Superintendent of the time, George Weaver visited the Elgin Asylum to see if they had any openings for insane patients. The Superintendent of the Elgin facility refused Weaver’s request explaining that Winnebago County had a quota of twelve for insane patients and that they had already exceeded their limit and sent twenty. He explained that Winnebago County had a “larger proportion of insane persons than any other county in the state.” The county sent twenty insane persons to be held at Elgin and there were nine more confined at the poor farm.

In 1883, a new two story building was built and renamed the Winnebago County Almshouse. It used a “brick veneer to cover a wooden frame”. The day of March 5, 1884 began with bitter cold temperatures but that didn’t discourage an amazing 600 people that arrived to visit the brand new Almshouse.  They rode trains from cities all over Northern Illinois. Sleighs were there to meet the trains to take the visitors the rest of the way to the home from the depot located at the bottom of the bluff on the the Rock River. Visitors were very impressed with the ornately decorated reception rooms with chandeliers and carpets. The “cells” as they had previously been called, were now referred to as “apartments” and plainly but nicely furnished.
The State’s Attorney, Mr. Works, was introduced and proudly announced to the crowd that the new building was considered by experts to be “the best constructed public building in the state of Illinois”, according to the local newspapers of the day. Works called it a “glowing tribute” and stated that it should make people proud that such a wonderful place was made for the poor and homeless.

Superintendent Sam Jones spoke next and stated that though at one time the Winnebago County facility was once considered “the worst in Illinois”, this new building was a new beginning.  He spoke of the Board’s visits to other almshouses in the state and choosing one to use as a model.  Jones promised that this new house would serve anyone who needed help despite color, age, or religious persuasion.  Most who visited that day agreed it was a wonderful “haven” for the county’s indigent. The paper titled the article “Pauper’s Palace.”

In 1893 Alexander Collier was the Superintendent of the Almshouse. There were sixty four inmates on the 200 acre farm. One great advantage of the new building built in 1883 was that the violently insane were separated from the others.

In November of 1904, the almshouse was found to be in bad shape. The newspapers claimed it was dirty, dingy and not fit for anyone to live in. In 1905, it was decided to transfer the insane patients to the Bartonville Insane Asylum. The County Board also decided to listen to Dr. Crawford at the Almshouse and create a sick ward at the poor farm that would include an operating room. The emphasis of the new ward would be the medical treatment of Rockford’s poor.  In 1907, an inspection showed the almshouse to be greatly improved with a separate house for any contagious diseases, something that the staff had requested for many years.

In 1919, the newspapers told the story of John Leffler. Leffler was born and raised in Rockford. Sometime around 1870, he decided to leave Rockford and see what adventures might be waiting beyond the city limits. He traveled first to Iowa where he applied his knowledge of carpentry skills to work on the state capitol building.  The promises of riches led Leffler to travel all the way to California where he finally settled in Los Angeles. During his travels, he lost track of his relatives in Rockford. Leffler grew older and began to think of his childhood and the family he left behind. He decided to return to Rockford but he had very little money. So John Leffler, at the advanced age of eighty seven years old, decided to walk all the way to Illinois. He left Los Angeles and when his money ran out, he was able to live off the kindness of strangers. Leffler walked over the mountains, rivers and plains until he reached Kansas City.

Unfortunately, it was here that Leffler ran into disaster. He was walking along the railroad when he was struck by a train. The police ambulance took him to the hospital where it was decided that his leg needed to be amputated. Leffler shared his story and his quest to reach Rockford with the nurses and doctors. They were all very touched by his story and decided to help the old man. They put him on a train to Rockford and made arrangements through the local Traveler’s Aid Society to meet him at the train station.

Leffler was picked up and a representative of the Society found him short term lodging while the Overseer of the Poor, George Wilson, assisted in searching for Leffler’s family. Unfortunately, George searched in vain. It was decided to admit Leffler to the Almshouse in 1919 where he stayed until his death.

In July of 1930, the Winnebago County Almshouse got a new look. Superintendent Conklin told the Rockford Republic reporter that all eighty of their beds were filled. He went on to explain that they had to turn some very needy people away because they just “could not care for anymore.”

During this time, this time the back of the building was used as a county hospital and added thirty beds and it once again was called the Winnebago County Poor Farm. The county finally voted to expand the building portion and construction was beginning on the 136 feet by 32 wide addition.  It would provide the home with a much needed hospital that would hold a hundred more beds.

The farm was still a working farm that included one hundred forty seven acres that the county owned and an additional one hundred thirty seven acres that the county rented. There were also one hundred fifty seven hogs and cattle, and forty seven sheep. The “inmates” that were able to work helped with the animals and the crops.

Tucked behind the new building, closer to the tree line, was the Winnebago County Poor Farm Cemetery, basically the county’s potter’s field. Prior to 1885, the potter’s field was found on Owen Center Road two miles northwest of the new location. In that year, the bodies were all moved to the quiet spot along the Rock River. They had markers during the 1930’s but most of them contained numbers instead of names.

“Few people ever visit the potter’s field and no flowers cover the graves. No one ever stops there in search of the grave of a loved one. Those buried in the potter’s field are truly forgotten.” Superintendent Conklin stated.

By 1932, the Winnebago County Poor Farm was in financial straits. Smaller townships in the surrounding area agreed to pay the farm for providing care for their poor and did not follow through with their part of the bargain. They were behind almost $45,000. They estimated a cost of over $.70 per patient per day for the home and almost $2.00 per patient for the hospital to run the Poor Farm. An average day at the farm saw over one hundred patients in the home plus another thirty five in the hospital. Those patients who were physically able helped with whatever farming or housekeeping chores that were needed. But many of the inmates were too sick or too old to be much assistance.

Polio hit Rockford hard in the summer of 1945. In a four month period, 382 cases were reported statewide. One-hundred-ninety-four cases were reported in Winnebago County and most of the patients were treated at the County Hospital. The peak was during the week of August 5 to August 13 when 57 people were stricken. During that summer, 36 people died from the outbreak, most of them were children. Nurses were brought in from all over the country to help with the patients, at the peak, over 200 of them worked at the County Hospital.

The worst cases were contained at the County Hospital, including the patients who required the iron lung machines to help them breathe.  An office was set up in the Faust Hotel where families could receive information since it was necessary to quarantine the patients.

There was a special Polio Committee formed to help with the epidemic. It released warnings to parents to keep their children at home and away from the pools, theaters, playgrounds, anywhere they would be around other children. The committee also made requests of the community for blankets, doctor’s gowns, and other items.
Other nurses visiting the people who were stricken with less severe cases. Their role was to check on the patients and their families. These nurses were sometimes accompanied by a food inspector.

In 1945, doctors were not certain what caused polio. They had no idea why that particular year was so bad. The summer of 1945 had twice the number of polio cases than the year before. DDT pesticides were used around the eight different milk pasteurization plants and the hospitals. The spraying was suggested to help cut down the amount of flies and proper garbage handling was also emphasized. The DDT was sprayed from big trucks with 30 hand pumps.

A ban was put on high school sports in the fall of 1945 while authorities tried to get the situation under control. Other towns, such as Freeport, took the drastic measure of closing theaters and other places where people would gather in groups.

Rockford struggled with the polio issue for years until Jonas Salk’s vaccine arrived in 1955, but it never again grew to the numbers that were experienced in 1945. Later people, as well as the newspapers, would refer to that year as the “Summer of Fear.”

By 1949, the financial struggles to keep the hospital and home open caused the County to look at other options. The idea that the county decided upon was to turn the poor home portion into a nursing home. This plan would shift the responsibility from the township to the state. The land was still used as a farm with livestock.

In the later part of the 1950’s, the decision was made to use the farm to grow crops to feed the livestock which would be used to supply the milk and meat used at the nursing home. This decision would reunite the two entities for the first time in five years. Previously, the County Farm and the County Home for the Poor were conducted jointly for over seventy years until 1953 when they were separated. In the 1960’s, the livestock was sold off and the County entertained the idea to turn the farm portion of the land into the River Bluff Forest Preserve but that idea was eventually rejected.

In 1966, Elsie Bickford a resident of River Bluff Nursing Home passed away. She lived at River Bluff for seventy six years. Elsie was only eleven years old when her grandmother, who raised Elsie since the deaths of her parents, became too ill to care for her. Elsie moved to the Winnebago County Poor Farm on May 15, 1889. At the time Elsie came to the home, there were other children living there. One by one each of the other children went to live with families, until Elsie was the only child left at the home. When she became an adult, Elsie continued to live at the Farm though whether it was because of employment or not was never explained.  She worked in the laundry and then eventually other jobs were added. Elsie passed away on April 14, 1966 at the age of eighty seven years old.

In 1968, a referendum was passed to build a replacement for the 80 year old building that had once again, grown dangerously overcrowded. The old building was filled with 204 patients with another 70 on the waiting list. The beautiful new building was opened in 1971. It continues to care for elderly patients needs whether it is rehabilitation so they can return home after an illness or surgery or long term care.

The Winnebago County Poor Farm Cemetery fell into neglect especially since the last burial in 1953. Weeds covered the stones and many of the graves were vandalized. One young man, Michael Spring, worked on the cemetery for a while trying to cut back the grass and mend the broken tombstones. Michael was a member of the Scout Troop 424 and worked on the cemetery as part of an Eagle Scout project.
Eventually it was decided to remove the remaining stones and place a memorial marker for the over six hundred men, women, and children that were buried there. The stone was placed just off a nicely paved path that runs behind the present day River Bluff Nursing Home. It serves as a reminder that many in our community who struggled to provide for their loved ones because of illness or financial difficulties were cared for by the facility and laid to rest here in this peaceful spot. The plaque, designed by Dick Farrell’s Forest Hills Monument Company, was dedicated on June 22, 1973. It states:

1884 THROUGH 1954.

~ 1973 ~

Originally published in Rockford Writes, (2015), Heath D. Alberts, editor.
Copyright © 2015, 2022 Kathi Kresol.