The St. Louis County Poor Farm

The 1905 St. Louis County Poor House, later renamed the Cook Home. (Image: St. Louis County)

Before Social Security, before General Assistance, before the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, before the Affordable Health Care Act—before these government-run safety nets developed to ensure that the less fortunate don’t go hungry and get the medical help they need—there was the humble county poor farm. These farms became a necessity after President Franklin Pierce vetoed a 1854 legislation that would have created asylums for the insane, blind deaf, and dumb, declaring that states, not the federal government, should handle social welfare. Nearly twenty years later in the Zenith City, that action lead to the creation of a county poor farm that served the community for over 100 years.

Early History

In November of 1872 the Duluth Minnesotian announced that the Duluth Cemetery Association and St. Louis County purchased some adjoining land for a public cemetery and a county poor farm. The county property consisted of 160 acres of heavily forested land between today’s Rice Lake Road and Arlington Avenue along Arrowhead Road. Laborers built the poor farm’s first structure, which could house up to 36 people, from pine timber that had been cut down on site. Before the land was cleared for farming, the sale of firewood helped financially support the facility. By 1874 the facility was a functioning farm, producing over 400 pounds of potatoes alone.

Three-fourths of those potatoes, however, went missing, and the Minnesotian hinted that those in charge of the poor farm—the county commissioners—were to blame, and had fattened themselves on 300 pounds of potatoes while the rest of the city suffered the effects of a financial depression that had hit the nation in 1873 and would soon send Duluth itself to the poor house. In 1875, John Linbeck took charge of the poor farm and was given the title “Overseer of the Poor.” The Minnesotian saw this as a direct result of “the Commissioners and their past actions in regard to the supplies to the Poor Farm.”

By 1882 Linbeck had been replaced by Charles A Banks; that same year Banks complained that $10 a month per poor farm “patient”—about $238 today—was not enough to feed them. Duluth was then emerging from the 1870s depression quite well, and within three years that budget rose to $12.50 per patient, and Frank McDevitt had replaced Linbeck at the helm. He earned $120 a month for his services, a salary that today would be about $36,500 a year. (These “patients” were often seen by a physician)

McDevitt apparently accomplished something none of his predecessors had: made the facility a pleasant place to stay. An 1886 article in the Duluth Weekly Tribune credits him for the farm’s “pleasingly clean condition, without any stale odors anywhere perceptible.… It has never been kept so well.” In Minnesota, only the Ramsey and Hennepin County poor farms were in better condition than the facility in Duluth.

Despite McDevitt’s success, he was replaced in 1887 by Antoine Paul. The following year the county authorized $900 to purchase another 20 acres adjacent to the farm. By 1890 the facility included a superintendent’s residence and a garage/cow barn. Alex Poirer had replaced Paul as Superintendent of the Poor, and in 1893 county commissioners praised his management of the poor farm, which was handling an average of fifty “inmates,” as the Duluth News Tribune referred to those living at the facility. Again, the report glowed that the poor farm “had never been in better condition.”

The following year the News Tribune ran a large article glowing about conditions at the facility, which also pointed out that it still was not a happy place: those who were so poor they had to live on the poor farm were not pleased with their place in life. There were likely more poor to serve by then, as another financial depression—the Panic of 1893—shut down businesses throughout the city. In 1896 H. H. Hart, secretary of the state board of charities and corrections, called for a new building at St. Louis County’s poor farm. The News Tribune said that “the present house at the farm is only fit for a barn and will soon have to be abandoned.” The building was delayed for several years.

During this period, the Minnesota Legislature authorized the creation of a three-person board to take charge of relief for the poor in St. Louis County and created the role of St. Louis County Poor Commissioner. Duluth’s Arthur Purdon Cook was appointed to the position in 1894. Cook, who generally went by his initials A. P., had been in Duluth since at least 1886. He worked as a druggist at Max Wirth’s pharmacy at 13 W. Superior Street (home of Lizzard’s Gallery today) and dabbled in real estate. In 1900, Cook would build one of the most recognizable homes in Duluth, the “House of Rock”—designed by architect I Vernon Hill—at what is today 501 W. Skyline Parkway. The house would become the most photographed home in Duluth.

1894–1934: The Cook Years

A year after he built his remarkable home, Cook’s title changed to clerk of the Board of Poor Commissioners. In 1905 the poor farm finally got the new building the state had called for in 1896. Designed by architect John R. DeWaard, the main building was a three-story, T-shaped facility with full basement constructed of concrete blocks with wood framing. (Many believe this is the first large structure made with concrete blocks in what was then considered the “northwest”.) The third floor housed a hospital, while women patients had a lounge on the second floor and the men a smoking room in the basement; up to 150 patients could stay at the facility. In 1909 the county erected a tuberculosis pavilion just south of the main building; it could serve up to 36 patients and replaced small shacks that once dotted the property.

Cook left his role with the county briefly from 1910–14 when he was appointed by President Taft to serve as Duluth’s postmaster. Cook likely returned out of frustration: during his tenure as postmaster, he pushed the federal government to either improve and expand or replace the 1892 Post Office Building. In 1913 the Post Office introduced Parcel Post, which increased space demands. That year Congressman Clarence B. Miller introduced a plan for a $1.2 million federal building. Duluth was so confident the new building would be funded, the Duluth News Tribune ran a Sunday illustrated essay about the “New Federal Building.” Five months later the newspaper declared such a structure was in Duluth’s “far distant” future. Cook returned to the Poor farm the following year.

During Cook’s time away from the poor farm Chris Jensen replaced Matt Haugh as its superintendent, and more buildings went up, including a horse barn, pig house and root house in 1913; a chicken house and brooder house in 1914; and a farmhouse, which served as home to the facility’s engineer, in 1915.

By 1921, all the TB pavilion patients had been moved to the Nopeming Sanatorium, and the building was remodeled to serve as a home for women. But within 12 years, the “women’s department” was overcrowded, and the county began looking for other housing options.

Another chicken house was added in 1924, the same year the poor farm first realized a profit, making it self sufficient. The farm grew potatoes and a variety of small vegetables, while its prize dairy cattle produced cream, buttermilk, milk; hogs were also raised at the facility. In 1924 profits were used to convert the facility’s garage into a blacksmith shop and build a cow barn. A milk house was added in 1928, and in 1929 the laundry space was remodeled and enlarged, and new laundry equipment was purchased.

A south wing was added in 1928, followed by a north wing in 1931; when complete the entire building could accommodate 528 patients. According to Grace Lofton, who interviewed longtime superintendent Chris Jensen and wrote a history of the Poor Farm in 1974, “The North Wing was built with hand labor and the only machine used was a hoist.” About 1,600 men labored on the job—and they were paid in groceries. The north wing included an auditorium, as well as dedicated space for a medical department. When the north wing opened, Hearding Hospital—a hospital established to serve the county’s poor and housed in the former 1887 St. Louis County Jail—transferred 34 of its patients to the Poor Farm.

Meanwhile, farther up Arlington Avenue stood a red brick building designed by J. J. Wangenstien and constructed as the Industrial School for Girls in 1925. According to county records, County Commissioners closed the school in 1933 and turned the building over to the Poor Commission, who renamed the facility the Arlington Home. Women from the Poor Farm were transferred to the building, which could house up to 52 patients. Just a year later the Arlington Home had reached its 52-patient capacity, forcing the county to reopen the original women’s department at the poor farm: it was the height of the great depression, and the county facilities reached their highest population ever, together serving 612 “inmates,” as residents had come to be known.

Double bunks were added in some rooms. Other patients slept on beds in hallways and in a dormitory upstairs in the laundry building. A 1934 census of the poor farm revealed that needs were shifting to the elderly: 455 of the facility’s 565 inmates were over 60 years old.

That same year the St. Louis County Poor Farm was renamed the Cook Home in honor of A. P. Cook, who retired that year. A Duluth Herald article commemorating Cook’s retirement described the position he held for forty years as requiring “patience, understanding, fairness, and both softness and hardness at times of depression, unemployment and epidemics. Terrific pressure is brought to bear on the Clerk of the County Poor Commission and it is no job for a weakling.”

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