The St. Louis County Poor Farm

The Cook home photographed some time in the 1960s or early 1970s. (Image: St. Louis County)

1934–1974: From Peak Occupancy to Obsolescence

It is rather appropriate that Cook retired in 1934—one year later the Social Security Act went into effect, and by 1950 most county poor farms would be a thing of the past. But the St. Louis County facility Cook helped to develop would continue to serve for another forty years.

The facility suffered during the second world war. Those housed at the Cook and Arlington Homes may have been considered patients, but most were by no means invalids. They were simply out of work and poor, with nowhere else to turn, and so they were put to work helping keep the homes running. And so during the war, when the majority of young men were fighting overseas and jobs supporting the war effort were plentiful, many of the Cook Home’s buildings fell into disrepair because very few people relied on the facility.

In 1948 the county launched a three-year program to rid the Cook and Arlington homes of their institutional look and give them more of a home-like feel. A document from a 1954 open house hosted by the St. Louis County Welfare Board (legislation in 1937 changed the group’s name from Poor Commission to Welfare Board) reported that, “The old plank benches, picnic tables, broken and discarded furniture donated in years past have all been replaced, and with them went the institutional colors of gray and brown. Residents now eat in cheerful surroundings at tables for four in rooms decorated in pleasant pastels, and china dishes have replaced battered tin…. The kitchen at Cook Home has been completely modernized, and new equipment has increased efficiency here and on the farm.” The changes were made in part to achieve what the county considered the goals of social work: “To help each individual to realize the satisfaction, pride and self-respect that result when he is able to demonstrate that he is capable of managing his own affairs.”

At the time of the open house, the number of residents at the two homes had dropped to an average of 258. A change in the availability of social assistance is also reflected in records that show that roughly a quarter of those “patients” paid for at least a small percentage of their care through “Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance benefits, Railroad Retirement or private funds.” An additional 91 residents were employed at the homes; 185 of the residents were totally dependent for care, with 96 men at Cook and 24 women at Arlington being at least partly confined to bed.

Many of these care-dependent residents had been transferred from state mental hospitals and nursing homes because it was believed they’d receive better care at less cost at the local level. Records show the annual cost per resident per day at Cook Home was $2.91 in 1953—about $25 a day in today’s dollars. The Open House document boasted that the facility’s services were, “provided at minimum cost because of the efficient operation of the Cook Home farm and laundry under a plan unique in administration of county welfare agencies. The farm supplies more than half the food for residents and all of the laundry is processed for Cook, Arlington and Miller Hospital by the Cook Home laundry. Both show consistent profits and result in considerable savings to the county.”

Despite that statement, within a few years the County Board voted to scale back on farming operations at the Cook Home, a year after Chris Jensen stepped down as supervisor (Jensen’s son Warren took over the superintendent’s position and served until 1986). The farm’s herd of about “52 pure-bred Holstein cattle, many of which won national and state honors for milk production,” were auctioned off in 1956; by 1957, the last two of the farm’s horses were sold. Remaining livestock, including hogs and chickens, were disposed of in 1971.

Another open house, believed to be only the third one ever at Cook and Arlington Homes, was held August 12, 1960, as part of the Seaway Portorama Celebration. Both homes, the program noted, had been licensed by the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare as Nursing Home facilities. At the time 211 men lived at Cook Home, which was licensed for up to 300; Arlington Home, licensed for up to 43 patients, housed 42 women.

The program also indicated that the decrease in population, down from the more than 600 in 1934, was due to a healthier economy, improved health care requirements and expanded facilities: “1934 was a depression year and many of the men left as times improved: under the Minnesota Department of Health the requirements were changed limiting us to our current population quote; also, since 1951, the county has established two infirmaries in Duluth and one in Virginia, and many of our patients were transferred to these institutions.”

The 1960 Open House program painted a clear picture of the facilities at that time of its history: “The homes employ 66 full time employees. A 266-acre farm is operated in connection with the institution and a well-equipped laundry provides services to both Cook and Arlington Homes as well as Miller Hospital. Each resident has the right of self-determination. There are no restrictions on their comings and goings, and they are free to spend their time as they wish. But we do our part by encouraging each resident to work if they are able, and provide an incentive by paying for their labor.”

Six years later the St. Louis County Welfare Board recognized the county had a shortage of nursing home facilities—both public and private—to serve “those patients the county is obliged to care for.” The Board voted to build a new nursing home next to the Cook Home. The one-story building was named in honor of Cook Home’s longtime superintendent Chris Jensen, who ran the facility from 1910–1916 and again from 1921–1955. The Chris Jensen Unit opened in 1967, under the direction of Warren Jensen. The same year the Arlington Home was renamed the May Morrow Unit in honor of its longtime supervisor May Morrow, who began working—and living—at the facility when it first opened in 1934. She retired in 1956 after a 45-year carer in nursing, 22 of that at Arlington Home.

The Beginning of the End

Grace Lofton’s 1974 history of the St. Louis County Poor Farm states that the fear many older people felt about the ride “over the hill to the poor house” and the final resting place in Potters’ Field was “pretty much a thing of the past. She went on to say that, “The Alm’s House, Poor Farm, County Home, or whatever it was called, is definitely a thing of yesterday. There have been many changes in attitude and philosophy over the years due to legislation, public interest, etc.” She was essentially predicting the end of the Cook and Arlington homes.

The 1980s marked the end of the Cook and Arlington homes. Warren Jensen retired in 1985. The county sold Arlington Home, which continues operating to this day, now offering assisted-living care as the McCarthy Manor. Other buildings were taken down in the mid-’80s, including the 1905 Cook Home building, which was razed in February 1987. It was replaced by the Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center.

Today, the farm’s barn and the root cellar still stand, as does the 1929 laundry facility. The County recently renovated the laundry building and, as a tribute to the past, re-named it the A. P. Cook Building. It now houses the county’s Extension Office, Safety and Risk Management Division, and a Property Management office. And the building’s laundry facilities continue to function, and will do so through 2015 as part of the contract the County Board approved earlier this year when the Chris Jensen facility was sold to Health Dimensions, Inc.

The county has continued to develop the land that once made up the Poor Farm. The Arrowhead Juvenile Center and Joint Public Safety Building, shared by the County Sheriff’s Office and Duluth Police Department, both stand on the site, now called the Public Safety Campus.

Likewise, the county has continued to evolve the services. The Poor Commissioners duties are now handled by County Commissioners, which oversee far more than welfare needs. The Welfare Department is now the Public Health and Human Services Department and operates four divisions, including Children and Family Services, Adult Services, Financial Assistance and Public Health. All share the same goal: improving lives by meeting the needs of today’s citizens.

Guest contributor Dana Kazel is the St. Louis County Communications Manager and a former news reporter for Duluth’s WDIO-TV. St. Louis County Facilities Supervisor Matt Seppo of the Duluth Public Safety Office and Zenith City Online’s Tony Dierckins also contributed to this story.

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