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'Names are what makes the difference'

Matt DeYoung • Sep 20, 2016 at 12:00 PM

In the late 1800s and well into the 20th century, the Ottawa County Poor Farm was a haven for indigent people who needed a place to call home. 

On Saturday, Oct. 1, the historic farm, located on what is now Eastmanville Farm County Park, will celebrate its sesquicentennial. 

Local artist Jane Ewing wanted to aid in the celebration by bringing out the personal history of the Poor Farm. Ewing, a calligrapher, created eight “memorial panels” which will be on display at the celebration. Each panel bears the name of many of the residents who called the Ottawa County Poor Farm home over the years. 

“To me, it’s the whole concept of — these are the people, and their names are what makes the difference,” Ewing said Monday afternoon as she and her husband, Wally Ewing, along with Ottawa County Parks volunteer Jim Key, hung the pieces of artwork in a corner of the barn. 

Ewing’s artwork features the names of 500 of the people who lived at the Poor Farm. 

“My contribution helps to acknowledge those who were, throughout the past 150 years, connected with the farm — residents, caretakers and supporters,” Ewing said. “Just as landscape architect Maya Lin’s revered Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., pays tribute to soldiers by having their names engraved into a black granite wall, the names I scribed on eight memorial panels give a place of honor to individuals associated with the Poor Farm.

“The number of those people is seemingly infinite,” she continued. “The names on the panels are a small representation of all who were linked with the farm — those few stand for many. Each name is acknowledged equally in no order by alphabet, date, rank or achievement. Names were chosen at random. The block of the tightly bundled list of lettered names is presented as a unified whole on each panel. The compact forms can be viewed as a tangible, graphic expression of the somber sentiment — that of remembrance and reverence.”

Ewing put her calligraphy skills to work, selecting letters that measure 1.5 inches high, and done in a style that makes them appear as if they were typed on a vintage Underwood typewriter.

“That lettering style is reminiscent of a time that harkens to the Poor Farm’s 19th-century beginning,” she explained.

Ewing lettered each name onto the panels, which are made of faux leather and measure 27 inches wide by 4.5 feet long. 

“Viewers will be welcomed to stand close to the panels and touch the names, written with thick paint that gives sculptural relief to the letters,” she said. “With this close contact, visitors will have the intimate experience of connecting to those who were once there — not only to individuals but to those who in totality stand for the Poor Farm community. I hope that the panels lure people — not to talk, but to feel and think.”

The site of the former Poor Farm is now a barn that was rebuilt in the 1920s after burning down. The barn received the 2016 Barn of the Year award from the Michigan Barn Preservation Network. 

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