A SOLUTION FOR HOMELESSNESS:
A NEW LOS ANGELES COUNTY “POOR” FARM
By Colleen Adair Fliedner
Author of the Rancho Los Amigos Centennial History Book
The words “poor farm” generally conjure up images of Oliver Twist and filthy almshouses, where half-starved men, women and children live and work in deplorable conditions. When it came to the Los Angeles County Poor Farm, however, nothing was further from the truth. When it opened in 1888 about two miles from the fledgling community of Downey, the L. A. County Poor Farm consisted of 124.4 acres of agriculturally rich farmland; two wards; a smaller, more rustic building housing a kitchen, dining room, and employees’ quarters; and several dozen residents.
While there were other county poor farms in the United States, none seems to have had the same success as L. A. County’s. The idea of combining housing for the homeless and hopeless of the County with a productive farm was nothing less than brilliant. Within 10 years of its founding, an article written about the County Farm described it as “the most beautiful, well-managed and cheerful home for those that are unfortunate, of any country on earth.” As the years passed, the word “poor” was seldom used, in spite of the fact that it was still the official name of the institution. This was done, in part, to eliminate the negative connotation associated with a County Farm. But the other reason was that Los Angeles’ Poor Farm was actually a pleasant place in its day…and it certainly beat the alternative of living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The County Poor Farm housed a variety of individuals with a wide range of problems. Like every other aspect of this fascinating institution, the type of patients cared for was constantly changing. By the turn of the century, the most notable difference was in the increase of elderly people brought to the Farm. This had occurred as a result of the depression of 1893, when state aid was cut to indigent men and women over the age of 60. According to County records, the elderly who were admitted to the Farm were in good health, but simply had nowhere else to go. Another group of individuals whose numbers increased after 1900 were those with mental illness, and especially those suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, which were considered a form of insanity at that time. Indeed, the County Farm became a sort of “catchall” institution, a custodial care facility that took up the overflow from the L. A. County Hospital and the state mental hospitals.
Though there were separate male and female wards, an old man in relatively good health might have had a bed next to a 15-year-old boy with epileptic seizures, or a blacksmith with tuberculosis. In spite of this undesirable situation, State inspectors reported that the County Poor Farm was one of the cleanest, most orderly institutions of its kind in California. Unlike many contemporary county-run poor farms around the country, the men and women at the Los Angeles County Farm had plenty of food to eat and spotless buildings in which to live.
By 1898 the number of acres had grown to 227. There were groves of oranges, fields of alfalfa, oats, corn, sorghum, beets, potatoes, and various fruits and vegetables. Fifteen acres were set aside for large expanses of well-manicured lawns, a variety of shade trees, and colorful flowerbeds. Hundreds of eucalyptus trees rimmed the grounds and lined the roadways. Impressed visitors often remarked that the place was kept up so well that looked like a park, rather than a poor farm.
Even more amazing was the County Farm’s dairy. Two hundred gallons of milk were produced each day by its eighty-five cows. Part of the milk was churned into butter and a portion became the Farm’s own cheese. Chickens and hogs were raised for meat. Physically capable residents did most of the work in exchange for food, a place to stay, and a stipend for extra purchases, such as tobacco. The County Poor Farm was so successful in these endeavors that it not only supported its own expenses, there was plenty of extra food and dairy products to feed the patients at Los Angeles County Hospital.
Many residents were either too old or frail to work. These men and women were cared for at the County Farm for the rest of their lives. Unless a family member claimed their remains, they were buried in the cemetery situated at one end of the property.
In the case of the ambulatory residents, they were often taught skills to help them find jobs “on the outside.” Actually, the County’s goal was to heal the residents who could be cured, and then prepare them to become self-sufficient. Besides learning about agricultural and dairy work, professional craftsmen were employed to teach the residents a variety of skills. For instance, a cobbler instructed male residents in the art of repairing and making shoes and manufacturing artificial legs. With so many people living at the Farm, the shoe shop provided a much needed and cost-effective service. In another shop, residents were taught to weave wicker furniture, which was used throughout the buildings and gardens, as well as being sold to the general public.
After a few years, the staff began to notice that the residents who suffered with arthritis and hand injuries who performed these and similar tasks had actually improved. Thus, what initially began as a way to help these individuals earn extra money for themselves and the County Farm became the beginning of what is today known as “Occupational Therapy.” This and dozens of remarkable developments and discoveries actually began at the L. A. County Farm.
This institution, which had begun with some 40 residents in 1888, had over 200 residents by 1898. The number of buildings grew in accordance with the availability of County funds. Sometimes there weren’t enough beds, and people were turned away. That’s why it became increasingly important to rotate needy patients in, while releasing the trained and fully recuperated men back into society as soon as possible.
Among the most surprising facts was that a separate “insane” ward was built in 1907 for the burgeoning number of mentally ill patients who continued to pour in from the County Hospital’s overcrowded “insane” wards. The records noted why each patient was deemed insane and required confinement to the mental wards. By today’s standards, many of the reasons are shocking. They included: syphilis, anemia, cerebro-spinal meningitis, brain tumor, epilepsy, pneumonia, sexual derangements, typhoid fever, alcoholism, over-study, jealousy, sexual excesses, fasting during Lent, abortion, childbirth and lactation, menopause, love affair, domestic infelicity, uterine trouble, and, last but not least, masturbation.
By the 1930s, another period of building was underway. The new Spanish-style buildings were attractive, reflecting the Farm’s Superintendent, William Harriman’s, love for Old California’s mission architecture. In 1932 he took his theme a step further, changing the County Poor Farm’s name to Rancho Los Amigos, which he translated as “Home of the Friends.” Under Mr. Harriman’s leadership, Rancho Los Amigos continued its evolution, adding a hospital building and infirmaries. Apparently, most of the patients thrived, fondly describing Rancho as their “Home Away From Home.” They expressed their sentiments through letters and poems, such as this poem written by a woman patient in 1932:
You call this the poor house? Nay friend, not so.
This house was built to God’s own plan,
Noble thought and loving hand.
This is not poverty’s abode, but wealth and love.
Here God moulds, makes, creates characters; and takes the ones He wants
For fitted works in His great house above.
You’ll find within these open doors welcome and protection from cares,
Worldly strife, wickedness, and human woes.
The best of all we need for happiness.
Behind these stately walls do roam
Kindly hearts and culture, too.
Souls filled with music, from whose faces shone
Thoughts as a draught of Heaven’s own blue.
We have the best which can be given,
Heat, food, best of matrons, nurses kind.
Doctors so wonderful.
Nay, this is not a poorhouse, friend, but earthly heaven.
The fact that so many patients felt this way is not surprising, when one considers the excellent care they received and the way they were welcomed to their “new home.” A small booklet given to each patient began:
“Our new friend, we welcome you to our little city. We hope you will find here a pleasant and comfortable home, with health and happiness. To this end, we need your help, not only in compliance with instructions of the medical staff who are working for your good, but in your thoughtful consideration and assistance of those who are weaker and less fortunate. You will not be burdened with oppressive rules. The one called the Golden Rule covers them all.”
Since its humble beginnings in 1888, what began as a home for the County’s needy has evolved into the world-renowned Rancho National Rehabilitation Center. Most of the County Farm era’s buildings on the south side of Imperial Highway have been demolished, leaving a large tract of land empty, with the exception of a few structures which have been repurposed. Could this County-owned property provide the space to allow the homeless of Los Angeles to erect their tents? Restrooms with showers like one would find in a campground could be erected. Perhaps converting empty shipping containers could be used for housing, as is being done in other cities around the country. Like the old County Farm, community gardens could be planted to provide fresh produce for the residents. Food banks could deliver meat and other necessities to prepare meals. Volunteers could teach some of the formerly homeless modern-day skills and, perhaps, help them find jobs.
The concept of bringing the homeless to a place where they would be safe, clean, fed, given rehab, and taught ways to re-enter society worked beautifully in the past. Why can’t it work now?
More Rancho Los Amigos advocacy: Here’s a video showing the state of the central quad as of July 31, 2022, including fencing and new sprinklers to give the lightning-struck Bunya Bunya tree a chance at survival. Plus: our webinar with Colleen Fliedner, Know Your Los Angeles County Poor Farm / Rancho Los Amigos (1888-?). Video of Esotouric’s Richard Schave giving public comment to the Historical Landmarks and Records Commission of L.A. County in support of saving Rancho Los Amigos and using it for the public good, and debunking news reports that the whole campus had burned down. Petition seeking to save the lightning damaged 1888 Bunya Bunya tree.
In October 2022, we made a video expressing our concerns about the old Potter’s Field Cemetery at 11269 Garfield Avenue in Downey, and the unanswered question of what happened to many thousands of cremated remains of Rancho Los Amigos residents that were buried there in the 1930s. If you’d like to track this situation, we’ve created a dedicated blog post just about the cemetery.