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County Poor Farm A Little Girl in the Woods

We may lose everything.

There’s a depression heading our way. That’s what the newspapers tell us. The economic kind. Here in Weatherford. Nibbling around the edges of our little town – taking its first taste.

Millions of everywhere-but-here folks have lost their jobs already. Swept away by the same tidal wave. Whose shadow we don’t yet see. Most in this nation, in this town, live three paychecks from the abyss. It will frost my britches, if my parents were right.

A family doesn’t need nice cars, a big house. You don’t OWN anything. You can’t DO anything. Why, your father and I made do with so much less. We didn’t have to worry about tomorrow. We didn’t have to.

Then a little girl calls out to me. “I survived,” she whispers. “So must you.”

That young girl’s childhood, remembered by her through a prism of almost eighty years, haunts me this day. She was my storyteller. I didn’t see it at the time. I visited her home expecting a Great Depression story of hardship and woe. That cup was handed back to me, overflowing. But in the midst of today’s woe, her small farm girl’s smiling stories keep bubbling to my surface. In the swirl of terrible suffering, humiliation, of death, there had been joy. I pull out my notes from our visit. I listen to her words.

Parker County Commissioners bought land for the County Poor Farm in 1883. It operated until about 1946. The county still owns the site, about three miles south of town. A few of its buildings, along with its lonely pauper cemetery still wait out there.
Individuals and families deemed insolvent were “sentenced” to live there, many decades ago. When neither family nor neighbors would take them in. Many were old. Were infirm.

Pride still governed our society back then. These folks weren’t happy to be out there. They weren’t looking for a free ride. Weatherford resident Nila Bielss Seale remembers those times as a girl. Remembers those people. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Bielss were the Poor Farm’s caretakers. Hired by the county from the late 1920s through the early 1930s.

“It was like a big home,” she said. “All the people there were like aunts and uncles. My mother and dad took care of them. They were doctor, nurse, and psychologist”.

The Poor Farm consisted of two 160 acre tracts of land. The superintendent and his family had a home out there. The house still stands, barely. There was a barracks-like dormitory across the road from the family’s house. Each Poor Farm resident had a room off its center hallway. The dormitory had a large porch across the front where the residents would often gather.

The Poor Farm’s large barn, smaller outbuildings, and a water trough inscribed by Nila’s daddy in 1923 also still remain. There’s also a shack of a house off by itself, being eaten alive by a tree, shared back then by a blind man and the farm’s Delco electrical system.

Joe C. Moore was one of the early Parker County Commissioners. He reflected on the court’s thinking in starting the poor farm, in a Weatherford Weekly Herald story September 21, 1911: “Editor: I desire to answer some of your questions as to why the county poor farm was purchased, how used and what revenue it produced. About 1881, soon after A. J. Hunter was elected county judge, B.C. Tarkinton, Joe C. Moore, Frank Barnett and W. A. Massey were commissioners. After an investigation, this court found that other counties had farms that were a source of good revenue, a large savings to the taxpayers, and a good thing in general.”

Moore says there were then thirty-eight people on the county indigent list who were each receiving $3 – $10 monthly. Parker County spent about $3,000 annually on its poor, back then. So the county bought this 320 acres, he said.

“George Abbott and wife were employed to superintend the farm with instructions to feed and clothe well all inmates of the farm, and to give each of the inmates a task according to their fittedness or ability.”

The farm was free and clear of debt after only three years. The commissioners additionally used jail inmates to work at the farm. They received credit against their sentences.

All thirty-eight paupers under the county’s financial support were then notified of the day and time to assemble, to be taken to the Poor Farm. Steaming Nazi locomotives pulling wooden-slatted cattle cars pop into my imagination as I write this. Though that’s probably not fair. I’m sure some thought, in Parker County back then, these people must’ve brought it on themselves. They had it coming.

Apparently only about half showed up, Mr. Moore tells us, “showing that the county had been paying out money to those who had other means of support.” No such testing goes on today. Far as I know.

The Poor Farm usually had between fourteen and twenty people living there at any one time. Those that were able worked in the fields, gathered eggs, raised hogs and cattle, milked or helped cook and clean back at the dormitory.

Aunt Mary, one of the residents there, was a cook while the Bielss Family lived there. The woman showed kindness to young Nila. “Aunt Mary made the best tea cakes,” she remembered. Once Nila’s pet goat Billy, who followed Nila everywhere, somehow got into Aunt Mary’s room when the little girl was visiting. Though Billy created quite a mess, Aunt Mary, known for her organization and cleanliness, acted like nothing had happened.

Aunt Mary grew tired in her later years and decided she was not going to help out around the farm any longer. Her back was bothering her, she said. She could no longer get around, she told some others. One afternoon, Nila’s dad came up to the dormitory’s porch, where Aunt Mary was still feigning illness. He let a harmless snake loose that promptly sought Aunt Mary out. Terrified of snakes, she leapt from her chair and took off, promptly cured of her affliction.

“We were almost totally self-sufficient,” Nila said. “The people there were very busy people. My mother and dad alternated each month in buying groceries. Mother would get mad if the grocery bill was over twenty dollars for the month (for about eighteen people). My dad butchered hogs after the first cold spell and cured the meat. The cellar was full – the walls were lined with fruits and vegetables my mother put up.”

During harvest season, when they would thresh the wheat, county commissioners would pay people from Weatherford one dollar a day to work (during the Great Depression). And people from town would come out, to help out – to get paid.
Nila’s dad would salt meat and hang it from the rafters. When Poor Farm folks became ill, her mother or dad would sit up all night with them.

Nila had a horse as a little girl. The commissioners apparently had confiscated the animal from someone, to stop its abuse. “The horse wasn’t quite right,” she remembered. “He would be perfectly sweet and normal, then all of the sudden just go crazy for a little bit.” Nila loved that horse. One day she was riding him up by the big barn, through some old tree stumps. The horse had one of his episodes. Threw her through the air and onto the ground. Her dad was nearby. Thank goodness. Made sure she was okay. She remembers this part. He told her to get right back up on that horse. So she did.

The Poor Farm owned a few other horses to pull the plows and wagons, even a couple of Percherons at one point. Nila remembers her dad being partial to mules. These teams would take corn to the gin in Granbury in a wagon, and would help harvest the wheat. When it was ready.

Nila’s father often woke up at 3 a.m. to begin his endless work around the farm. Near the end, most of the farm’s residents were advanced in age. Were not a lot of help.
“Daddy liked to whistle,” Nila told me. “He was known for that. You could hear him, even at three in the morning, out there whistling.” He was a deacon in the local church, where her mom taught Sunday School and played the piano. Before they were married, Mr. Bielss had to sell his beloved horse Penny. He needed the money. He wanted a proper wedding ring. He sacrificed.

Nila’s folks were good people, were hard workers. Nobody helped them out much except for Moses, Mr. Taylor, and sometimes Aunt Mary. “Mr. Taylor, who was blind, would want to help out more, but we were always afraid for him, when he got around the big saw,” Nila told me. He was a nice man, she said. Mr. Taylor.

Nila remembers her family having a small record player. One day she and her brother Eldon were playing “He’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” so loud that her mother could hear it down the hill. They got into a storm of trouble. Before electricity was common, the farm had a Delco unit powered by a windmill to run a few things, like the single bulbs that hung from a few of the ceilings. The Delco was located in same little house that Mr. Taylor lived in. The blind gentleman.

Poor Farm residents washed their clothes in big black number five wash pots. The man named Moses kept pecans in a Maxwell Coffee can. He cut those pecans into laser-perfect halves. Moses did. Moses was paralyzed on one side. Had a peg leg that he made himself.

Nila told me about Mrs. Baker, who’d been addled after being struck by lightning. It stayed with her. Mrs. Baker. Whenever a storm approached, Nila’s parents had to comfort her fears.

Nila told tales of a happy childhood at the farm. At the Poor Farm. Where her parents took care of so many. Nila never lacked for anything, she wanted me to know. Nila bottle fed her goats. Had a menagerie of livestock to keep her entertained. She listened to Little Orphan Annie on the family’s radio.

Around 1946 the dormitory building where the residents lived was moved to the 100 block of Throckmorton in Weatherford. It there served as a home for the aged. The move was the end of the true operation of the Poor Farm. The building was later relocated to Rusk Street, where it still stands.
I drive past it. Often. Though I’ve never ventured up to it. Wouldn’t be polite.
After World War II, the federal and state governments increased social services for the poor and the elderly. For the nation. Not just Parker County.

The Poor Farm pauper cemetery still sleeps off in the woods. The place was forgotten until the early 1980s, rediscovered by a group of hunters. It appeared to have about forty adult graves. And one child’s grave. No one knows for sure.

The earliest documented burial was 1904. The lonely site had no fence. At that time the county commissioners were considering selling the farm. The Parker County Historical Commission persuaded commissioners to let them restore the dignity of the cemetery. This, they did.

Later in 1986 a historic marker was awarded by the state, now visible from Tin Top Road. A right-of-way was established from Tin Top to the cemetery. The Parker County Abandoned Cemetery Association continues to maintain the cemetery, with the help of donations. They do this, to this day.

I need to finish this story. There’s much to do. To prepare for. I feel nauseous. Unsure.

I need a snake to scare me off this porch.

One man living at the Poor Farm was insistent that he not end up in the pauper cemetery. When the time came, Mr. Bielss buried him off in the woods. Wayne Thompson, who ran a dairy on the property in the 1950s remembers three lone graves off together near a lone tree, about a half mile away. This man’s presumed to be one of the three. But I’m not sure.

J. G. Godley’s death was particularly tragic. Godley died of suicide November 11, 1929. Nila recalls that Godley was once a wealthy man (related to the family that started the Godley community to our south). He was divorced, was 87 at the time of his passing. He apparently squandered his fortune and died a pauper at the farm. He was always very bitter and depressed, Nila told me. Many times he pleaded with her dad to kill him.
One morning the Bielss Family was having breakfast. Before sunrise. The cows down the hill started bawling. Her dad got his lantern. Said he’d better go check on what was wrong. On what was the matter.

Mr. Godley had cut his throat inside the farm’s two hole privy. In the Poor Farm’s out house. He lay dead on the floor. The county death certificate lists no relatives and no birthdate. The November 12, 1929 Daily Herald obituary shows one daughter in Austin. I never found her.

Nila remembers Mr. Godley being buried outside the paupers’ cemetery fence by her father. County records show his final resting place as Oakland Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. Stories about Mr. Godley conflict around this town, even today. I believe that little girl, though bottom line, Mr. Godley is lost as well.

The Poor Farm Cemetery has one of the highest ratios of unmarked graves in Parker County. Out forty known graves, only one had a marked headstone. There is a newer granite marker listing the people who died at the farm, but were buried in other locations. The Abandoned Cemetery Association did that.

Association members Mary Kemp and Billie Bell spent long hours going through records trying to learn the names of those interred at this cemetery. Mary helped me with this story. Nila was its ringside witness.

I don’t know how this story comes out. The Poor Farm. Parker County. The American nation writhing in doubt and uncertainty. Today’s headlines could be an echo to that earlier time.

We could be in for the surprise of our lives.

The Poor Farm woods south of Weatherford probably hold this nation’s answer. The souls in that graveyard. The whispers in those trees.Those times seem so foreign. Listening to that little girl. To the slip-sliding past. Our future’s out there. A cradled secret, walking around in the faded front overalls pocket of another time. But those folks aren’t talking. Not today. Not to me.