Johnson County Poor Farm

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Johnson County Poor Farm
Established 1855
Opened 1886 (Second location)
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Single Building
Location Iowa City, IA
Alternate Names
  • Johnson County Asylum
  • Chatham Oaks


The 1855 Johnson County Poor Farm, is a window on nineteenth century definitions and policy dealing with perceived social problems. The need to care for the poor or mentally ill had been established in the United States in the 1820’s as a duty of the state and local governments. This duty was recognized early in Johnson county history. The County chose first to contract care usually from local physicians. In 1855, the Johnson County supervisors decided to procure 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City for a “poor farm” to provide systematic care with economy.

The early care of the poor and mentally ill was crude by modern standards, reflecting the prevailing attitude that fresh air and work would be good for these “poor unfortunates”. From the earliest days, “inmates” were expected to do farm chores to the extent of their abilities. The farm was to be self-supporting and the labor of the inmates would help compensate the county for their care. Crop farming and dairy production were primary functions of the farm until the 1960's.

Today the early twentieth century milking barn, a late nineteenth century hay/horse barn, five smaller buildings, the “insane” wing, and the cemetery survive. The 1859 “First Johnson County Asylum” wing is restored and listed on the national Register of Historic Places. Though unused for many years, the buildings and acreage have received basic maintenance and many of the original features are intact including a brick cistern outside the horse barn. A unique stock watering system is still in place inside the smaller buildings and the milking barn still has its equipment, stanchions, feed boxes, separating room, cooler and silo.

The patients slept in rooms, the doors with iron bars, locked and padlocks at night. Tranquilizing and energizing drugs were first used about 1948 and more extensively up in to the 1960s. In August 1962, there were 16 mental, 33 retarded patients, and 9 dependents at the County Home - a total of 58 patients.

By 1977, only the insane wing remained of the old complex. Recognizing the building’s “moving and thought-provoking glimpse into the history of public mental health care,” it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. It was officially listed on the National Register in 1978. Despite this listing, the asylum’s condition continued to worsen. By 1988, the floor systems and foundation had rotted away. The entire building would have to be raised, straightened and braced while the floor and foundation were rebuilt. Rot had to be removed, the walls and roof needed repair, and new windows and doors were needed. Recognizing the building’s need of repair, the County Board of Supervisors allotted over $60,000 for this restoration. The county hired architects Kruse Associates to supervise the restoration and Don Brus, a contractor with experience in farm and historic buildings. After two years of work, the asylum was opened to the public on September 23rd, 1990

The Johnson County Poor Farm site is important to Iowa’s history, telling the story of the county’s care for it’s citizens from the earliest days until today. The county’s first facility is the asylum and a few hundred feet to the east is the county’s most recent facility, Chatham Oakes built in 1964.(now privatized). Each county in Iowa had a poor farm and the tradition is well represented by the Johnson county farm, which may well be the only remaining intact example. [1]