Winnebago County County Poor Farm

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Winnebago County County Poor Farm
Established 1853
Opened 1854/1883
Current Status Demolished
Building Style Single Building
Location Rockford, IL
Alternate Names
  • Winnebago County Almshouse


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 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.

An 1873 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. 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.

By 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 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. 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. 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.

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 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.