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~ Kathy M.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

John Riley, 1898: First the Poor Farm and then The Oregon State Insane Asylum

One thing led to another for this post.  When I first saw the Sepia Saturday photo of the girls working in the garden, for some reason it reminded me of Oregon's now extinct "poor farms".  Oregon folks were sent to a poor farm to work off their debts.  Poor farms were scattered throughout the state and received reimbursement from the government to house and feed their workers.

The man in this story, Mr. John Riley, was sent to the "Cleveland Poor Farm" by Judge Stearns.  I am not sure yet where that was located.  There was a poor farm near Silverton, Oregon (close to Salem) open during the time period that the letters below were written, and here is a link to some info about it Salem

However, it seems more likely that Mr. Riley may have been sent to a poor farm at bit closer to home.  The photo of the Jackson County Poor Farm below was taken near Medford,  not so far from Yoncalla.  Please check out this blog link for more information about it by clicking here.

Source:  Wright Archives Blog

This story also has to do with the Oregon State Insane Asylum, which was completed in 1893 and is located in Salem, Oregon.  They changed their name in 1913 to the Oregon State Hospital.  A new facility has only recently been built, and portions of the old hospital have been turned into a museum.  Please check out the links at the bottom of this post for more information.  Here is a picture of what it looked like back in the day:

The men with the lawnmowers below were patients a the Oregon State Insane Asylum in 1910.  There was a lot of lawn to mow at that joint.  Can you imagine using push mowers to clip the grass on all of those acres? 

Source:  Oregon State Library

My story today begins in 1898.  I found the information below in our beloved collection of The Letsom Letters.  My Great-Great Grandfather, John Lestom, was appointed guardianship of John Riley, who the state determined needed to be placed at a poor farm in February 1898.  Mr. Riley had to leave his two boys and his home behind.

I have found some of the correspondence that tells about how that came about.  I only wish that I also had copies of the letters that Grandpa John wrote to Judge Stearns of Roseburg.  It seems that John Riley may have eventually left the poor farm for the asylum within only a few months.

Oregon's Provisional Government had a program that helped responsible folks provide services for those where were deemed no longer competent to take care of their own affairs.  The guardian would need to put up a $600 bond to assure that they would do their appointed job, and could receive up to $1 per day to room and board the incompetent person.  After the insane asylum (such a horrible name!) was opened, then many of the incompetent and/or mentally ill folks were sent there to live.

February 17, 1898.  Grandpa John Letsom received this letter from County Judge A.F. Stearns regarding John Riley, I'm certain, though it looks as if the judge is calling him Thos. in this letter for some reason.

Roseburg, Or.

Mr. John Letsom
Yoncalla, Or.

Dear Sir,

Mr. Thos Riley came here with Mr. Stephens and is stopping at the hotel.  Seems quite restless and talks at random on a petition filed by Mr. Stephens.  I have appointed you this Mr. Riley's guardian and you will take immediate charge of all his property and see that it is not molested.  And keep the boys in school if possible.  You can write him, address to Cleveland Careof Poor Farm.  As he goes tomorrow to the Poor Farm to stay as I think it best for the present.  I will have the clerk send you your appointment.  I will write you again soon.  I will send a bond as agreed.

Yours truley,
A.F. Stearns

February 23, 1898.  Grandpa John Letsom received this letter from County Judge A.F. Stearns regarding John Riley:

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews

Roseburg, Oregon 2/23/1898

Mr. John Letsom
Yoncalla, Ore. 

Dear Sir,

Yours with bond enclosed D. Land and enclosed herewith find appointment bond is all.  

I think you could take a list of all the things just for your own use only for the present.  And you can let one of the boys on some Saturday to the station to Mr. Riley at the Poor Farm.  He could go on Saturday and return on Sunday, stay overnight there.  Then I think you could get along o.k. with boys and stock.

Mr. Churchill, superintendent of the farm was here today and reported Mr. Riley quite satisfied but talking considerable about his station (?).  I informed Mr. Churchill I would write you to send him over by one of the boys.  I will write you later if I think you need instructions.

Yours truly,
A. F. Stearns

February 23, 1898:

Then, I don't know what happened.  It looks as if  perhaps Mr. Riley's condition worsened, because this next letter came four months later from the Oregon State Insane Asylum.

June 21, 1898. 

 Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews

Source: Holy Rollers Website

At this time, I do not know what became of poor Mr. Riley.  I feel satisfied that his boys were taken care of, but I don't know if they went to live with relatives or not.  As I wade my way through The Letsom Letters, maybe I will find out more.  There is a chance that there was a Thos. Riley who went to the poor farm and a John Riley who went to the insane asylum.  If you know more, or can help me figure things out, please tell me!

Here is a blurb about Grandpa John Letsom (he is shown here with Grandma Sarah).

The Letsom Letters ~ Kathy Matthews, 2012

"In politics Mr. Letsom is a stanch and loyal republican.  For two terms he served as assessor of old Umpqua county before Douglas county was cut off.  From the time of his arrival in the county until 1911, covering a period of about fifty-nine years, he served continuously on the school board in one capacity or another.  To fill vacancies he served by appointment as justice of the peace and also in the office of postmaster at Yoncalla.   In the early days he knew everyone living in the northern part of Douglas county and the circle of his friends was almost coextensive with the circle of his acquaintances."


So, there you are, my friends.  If you enjoyed this story, please visit my Sepia Saturday friends by "CLICKING HERE" to find other neat photos and stories.  To read more about my family and other stories featuring old photos, memories and more, please look for this picture of me and my dad on the left-hand sidebar and read whatever else catches your fancy.  Thanks so much for visiting!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews


Tammy said...

Very interesting post.
I never knew that there were poor farms!

Wendy said...

Such an interesting and puzzling story about poor Mr. Riley. There were poor houses in Virginia too, but I don't know of any pictures. I'll have to look into that.

Gloria (The Little Red House with the White Porch) said...

SO interesting, Kathy! I feel so badly for John Riley though! It seems there was no one on his side at the Poor Farm or Asylum... I still don't understand how your great grandfather got to be his Guardian though, or why he'd WANT to be! It seems like your GG even had to PAY to be is guardian! Plus that seems like a big responsibility to be someone's guardian and worrying about the person's kids and all. I wonder why they wouldn't let your GG sell Riley's farm/crops to give the money to Riley's kids, you know? Man, it is like a mystery! Maybe you will find out more as your go over more letters and things. Good luck, it's a big job sorting through everything! VERY interesting story though.

Gloria (The Little Red House with the White Porch) said...

p.s. Thank goodness there are no more poor houses... otherwise I'd be in one! ;)
and that there are no more insane asylums... otherwise my son would put me in one! ;)

Rosie said...

We have it so good nowadays. I can't imagine living in those conditions! Very good post.

Little Nell said...

I’ve learned something new again Kathy! I’d never heard of Poor Farms, and it seems you have your work cut out trying to find out about this transaction. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Your grandfather seems to have been a benefactor of some sort, but I wonder how he got involved. Poor old John Riley. I’m sure you’ll be posting about him again!

barbara and nancy said...

Wow, Kathie, such an interesting story. and you have so many great letters from so long ago. what treasures. but poor Mr.Riley. I'll bet he wasn't really insane. I'd seen insane too, if they sent me away from my kids to a poor farm.
Nancy Javier

Bob Scotney said...

What a story, Kathy. It must have taken some work to put it together. I guess the poor farms were a different version of our work houses in the 1800s which Dickens had a lot to say about. We had equally harsh names for our hospitals - lunatic asylums rather than insane asylums.
Great post.

Karen S. said...

Oh no! A tale from bad to worse! I have heard about such poor farms, which many around where a good thing, when family couldn't help and much better than taking to living in the streets, right? I also have heard/read about those asylums or places for depressed people, like mud treatments or something. But such a story you have detailed so excellently with great letters, (gotta love their spelling at times) and thankfully we don't send people away to asylums as easily as they did back then! What a delightful history lesson I always get here! Thanks Kathy!

Postcardy said...

I knew about poor farms, but I didn't know about unrelated guardians. Nowadays, Mr. Riley might just end up homeless and on the street.

(Queenmothermamaw) Peggy said...

I remember when I was growing up we had a Poor House in our town. That was in the 40's and 50's. That eventually became a nursing home at that location and is still there today. Wish I had as much info in my genealogy collection as you have.

Christine H. said...

Absolutely fascinating. I think Postcardy is right - nowadays Mr. Riley would have just ended up homeless. Thanks so much for this wonderful post.

Tattered and Lost said...

Sad to think that it's possible Mr. Riley didn't not suffer mental problems and could have been housed for something as confusing as epilepsy. All the lives that were destroyed over decades because medical science and the state did not have the best interest of their wards.

Wibbo said...

Fascinating post - I'd not hear of poor farms before.


I see I'm not the only one dropping a heap of info for people to see and read.
BTW: much liked that postcard in that other post linking here. What a grand place.

I guess your Mister Riley suffered from depression. But I warrant such places would be full, given the state of the economy and how people are suffering from the inequality existing in our/your/their system.

BTW: that great grandpa of yours look mean, while the missus look sad. Your input???

Linda said...

fascinating history and documents. I'm also struck by how color changes how we see photos of old buildings. Less foreboding in color!

Penny said...

Love your site, and my g-grandfather is listed as dying in the Umatilla County Poor farm 1933, this location was on the city outskirts of Pendleton, Oregon

Thanks again for your hard work and beautiful posting. Penny

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I really enjoyed your blog - I found it while searching for the roots of what our neighbors call the "poor farm" down the road where I just moved.

If you mapquest "Cleveland, Oregon" you get the area where we recently built a home on Youngs Lane, Roseburg. About 3 miles east of us, along Melqua Road toward Roseburg there is an old farm along the Umpqua River locally known as the poor farm. Since even the UPS guy knows this area as Cleveland, it might be that your story about getting sent to the "Cleveland poor farm" might be the poor farm right here in the Roseburg area - much closer than Medford or Grants Pass.

Just a thought!

Roberta Watson

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Kathy - I forgot to mention that there are also two beautiful historic cemeteries on Melqua Rd - the Cleveland cemetery nearer the south end and the Coles Valley Cemetery on the north end.

good luck in your search - I haven't found much out about the Cleveland poor farm - but I also haven't had time to visit the Douglas Historical resources in Roseburg. If you ever get a chance to drive Melqua Rd - the "poor farm" is just past (or north) of the confluence of the south and north Umpqua rivers - you can see the confluence and the county park across the river from Melqua Rd. The poor farm property is the next strip of land along Melqua Rd and has a large barn at the road. The old house sits back nearer the river. The barn has an interesting piece of statuary in the barnyard - a bull I believe. Directly across the road is a driveway that goes to a home that you cannot see uphill - but you'll surely remember. The owner is a local celebrity of sorts - an artist that is responsible for many concrete over fiberglass statues that you see along his driveway, in the poor farm barnyard and further along Melqua Rd in the fields. I believe that the artist probably now owns the poor farm property.

Just some local color!


Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Ms. Kathy,

The Douglas County Genealogical Society has asked that I do some research on the Douglas County Poor Farm. In so doing, I have found your web page on John Riley. As I am sure you now know, the “Cleveland” mentioned by the County Judge, is a area, now off Melqua Road and with a Roseburg, Oregon mailing address.

I am seeking permission to utilize some of your material on the captioned subject for my finding on the Douglas County poor Farm. Specifically, I would like to utilize one letter from Judge Starnes to John Letsom?

Your web page on John Riley is marvelous. If you would ever allow the Douglas County Genealogical Society permission to use that page in their printed material, I am certain that they would be very pleased.

Thanks for your consideration,

John Urbaniak
Roseburg, Oregon

No Copying!


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