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Celebration planned for Poor Farm's 150th anniversary

By Andrea Goodell/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 20, 2016 at 11:00 AM

POLKTON TWP. — Social services may have stopped more than 15 years ago, but many in Ottawa County still remember the “Poor Farm.”

Without Social Security, Medicaid or a safety net of any kind for those too poor, too infirm or too old to take care of themselves, the Ottawa County Poor Farm was there.

The farm is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Civil War veterans coming home with physical, psychological and emotional injuries pushed the federal government to require states to provide “poor farms” in their counties. If an Ottawa County resident could not live independently — poor or not — they would likely end up at the Poor Farm, now known as the Eastmanville Farm Park on the Grand River in Polkton Township.

“Some of the stereotypes pop up, but a lot of them were just like us,” said volunteer and historian Marjie Viveen. “There’s a judge (who lived) out there. They’re teachers, fishermen, farmers — they’re us.”

Thousands of people lived, worked and volunteered there, including Holland large animal veterinarian Dr. Alfred Curtis who moved to the farm in his old age. “He breaks the stereotype” of the pauper or hobo on the poor farm, Viveen said.

Benjamin Fanner was one of the first residents of the farm and is buried there. Fanner was indigent.

Before poor farms, the poor of a community were often put up for public auction. Their care was auctioned off to the lowest bidder and they would have to work for that person.

“If this sounds like slavery to you, it’s darn close,” Viveen said.

When the Poor Farm opened, Fanner moved from indentured servitude to the farm.

“The Ottawa County Poor Farm provided shelter — and not just shelter, but dignity,” Viveen said.

Contemporary reports to the county and reports in local newspapers provide a glimpse into daily life on the farm.

“If something happened on the farm — someone died, someone visited, a church came to sing — there were reports in the paper,” Viveen said. “Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was wonderful, and sometimes it was tragic.”

The farm was home to an average of 40 residents at any given time. Some people would stay a couple of days, while “others spent lifetimes there,” Viveen said.

“It provided them meaningful work to the degree they were able to do it,” she said.

They would take care of the animals, crops, housework and each other.

Over the years, it morphed from a place where a cross-section of Ottawa County would work and live into Community Haven, a home for those with developmental and other disabilities. Eventually, it became home to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department’s jail release program for those with minor offenses.

Today, it is Eastmanville Farm Park, a historical site and county equestrian and hiking park.

The memory grove, established in 2012 in a mature grove of trees — “old enough to have seen many of the events recorded here” — was erected to honor men and women who lived and worked on the farm, according to documents from the county parks department.

Save for a barn built in 1928 after the original structure burned, most of the buildings of the old Poor Farm are no longer there, but there’s still a few physical reminders of the history of the 229-acre site.

The Poor Farm cemetery was rededicated in 2010. Although ground-penetrating radar revealed 64 people buried there, only four graves were marked. The others were likely marked with wooden crosses or stones that have since fallen away, Viveen said. New markers were added precisely where each head rests. A large stone and plaque lists everyone buried there, according to the farm’s records.

Volunteers have worked hard to restore parts of the farm and to create a 150th anniversary celebration this fall, in part to dispel the myths surrounding the Poor Farm. Viveen is also chairwoman of the 150th anniversary celebration.

The free Oct. 1 event will include a re-creation of the historical farm market, music, an ice cream social and the stories of several of the people who called the farm home over the years.

Among the 25 re-enactors on the farm that day will be Eldon Kramer, in the role of his great-great-grandfather Isaac Kramer, who is buried at the farm along with his two sons. Four other re-enactors are direct descendants of farm residents.

A corridor of the building known as the infirmary will be re-created with doors along each side, each telling the story of a person who lived behind that door.

“Some of these stories are just incredible,” said Jessica VanGinHoven, communications specialist for the Ottawa County Parks Department. “The research that has gone into creating them is equally incredible.”

The parks department and other organizers are looking for sponsors for the event.

Later that evening, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum will host a special dinner. The menu couldn’t be more authentic.

In 1899, a Grand Haven Tribune reporter hunting for a story visited the farm. After being invited to dinner, he wrote an article about the experience, including every last morsel served — fried chicken, beets, roasted potatoes, mashed butternut squash, cabbage, rolls and butter, apple pie and coffee — the coffee being the only thing served that wasn’t raised or grown on the farm.

Members of the museum will be invited as well as anyone else who requests an invitation. However, the 200 tickets will be on a first-come, first-served basis.

Retiring Ottawa County Judge Ed Post will emcee the event, but not as himself. Post, who is also an amateur re-enactor, will perform as Poor Farm resident Judge David Fletcher Hunton and recite poetry written by his alter-ego.

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