A Poor Farm for the Ojai Valley?

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Posted by Craig Walker on June 16, 2011

A Poor Farm for the Ojai Valley? By Ed Wenig

“Over the hill to the poor-house
I’m trudgin’ my weary way-
I, a woman of seventy, and only
A trifle gray…
Many a step I’ve taken a-toilin’
To and fro
But this is a sort of journey
I never thought to go.”

Thus ran a popular sentimental poem written by Will Carleton in the late 1880s. Except for the vote of our supervisor in 1895, such a journey might have been taken by indigent aged to the Ojai Valley.

“The Ojai” publicized a proposal on June 12, 1895, in an editorial bearing the headline: “A County Poor Farm for Ojai Valley”. “When the supervisors were in Ojai a few days ago viewing the roads, they also inspected the Roth ranch of 120 acres near Nordhoff, offered to them for the purpose of a county poor farm, and they were so favorably impressed with the advantages of the place, they ordered their intention to buy the farm.”

This touched off a series of editorials in various papers in the county concerning the advantages of such an establishment.

An article in the Ventura Free Press explained, “The change of the laws by which the support of indigent poor is borne solely by the county in which such indigents may reside is, no doubt, equitable and just, but it makes all the more necessary the careful consideration of the question as to how this may best be provided for in the most economical manner. By the purchase of a farm and caring for them they will become as nearly self-supporting as their condition will permit…Scarcely a county can be found in the Eastern States that is not provided with a poor farm. Nearly all of them are not only self-supporting, but a source of revenue.”

Immediately the supervisors were besieged by competing offers from parts of the county to sell them land for a poor farm.

The editor of “The Ojai” threw all his support to the proposed farm on the Roth property. He wrote, “The 120 acres are all good land, with plenty of wood and water…San Antonio Creek runs through the ranch…There are also on the place four springs, the water of which, coupled with a good climate, is said to be an infallible cure for asthma.”

In another issue he pointed out, “One strong argument why the Roth place is the most desirable for the poor farm is that it is within walking distance of all churches in the valley. Poor people desire and should have church privileges.”

In yet another issue he remarked, “The fact should be borne in mind the people who would be admitted to the poor farm are nearly always feeble and unable to do much of any labor in a climate that is not the mildest. The climate of the Ojai Valley can’t be beat in the world for its salubrity.”

The County Board of Supervisors went to San Francisco to study the poor farm maintained there. Upon their return, K.P. Grant, supervisor from Ojai, reported that, by means of the farm, San Francisco was able to care for the poor at an expense of only $3 per month each, which Ventura County was paying $5 per week.

The supervisors met on July 31, 1895, to make a final decision on the purchase of the Roth property. They were confronted with a written protest signed by many large landowners of the county, including such names as Adolfo Camarillo and Thomas R. Bard. In the final vote, K.P. Grant of Ojai and Supervisor Hartman voted in favor of the purchase of the Roth property, but the three other supervisors voted again it. Thus Ojai lost the county poor farm by one vote, and the entire issue of establishing a poor farm anywhere in the county was dropped.

It is interesting that, throughout the whole spirited discussion of the issue in the newspapers of Ventura County, the citizens of the Ojai Valley remained strangely silent. No letters pro or con appeared in the local paper, nor was there any evidence of discussion in public meetings. One wonders what the attitude of the citizens of the Ojai Valley was toward the proposal to establish a county poor farm in their midst.

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Craig Walker June 16, 2011 at 10:53 am

Most poor farm inhabitants were elderly folks (particularly women) without families to support them. In 1895, nearly 85% of Americans 65 or over lived with their children or other family members. Those that had no family usually wound up in poor houses or on a poor farm. In those days, less than 4% of the population was 65 or older, compared with 13% today; in 2050 that number will rise to 20%.

It should be noted that residency on a poor farm was considered a form of incarceration (residents were often referred to as “inmates”), which is why people lost all dignity when admitted to a poor farm. It was the end of the road for most, which is why an important feature of the poor farm was its cemetery.

Social security not only emptied the poor houses of their elderly residents, but also allowed those over 65 to begin living independently. Today, only about 25% of those 65 and over live with family members or in a home or an institution.

It was Ojai resident, Ethel Percy Andrus who helped change the lives of America’s older population by creating retirement communities like Grey Gables, raising pensions and social security payments, bringing insurance to the elderly, and ending mandatory retirement laws. See the post Ethel Percy Andrus: How One Woman Changed America.

Emerald July 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Hate to tell you this, but it’s all headed back that way again thanks to what is going on in the world!

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