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Indiana ‘Poor Farms’ On Top 10 Most Endangered List

  • Warren County Home

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    Photo: Courtesy Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology

    The Warren County home, near Williamsport, is one of eight county homes considered endangered by the Indiana Landmarks.

  • warren county home

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    Photo: Terri Wargo

    A historic photo of Warren County Home.

  • Steuben County Home, Angola

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    Photo: Indiana Landmarks

    The Steuben County home is also on Indiana Landmarks 2013 'Top 10 Most Endangered Landmarks' list.

Imagine it’s the late 1800s. You can’t find a job. You don’t have relatives to provide for you and there’s no federal welfare. But, instead, you can turn to county homes.

“Those disadvantaged that found shelter here and made their residence in county homes, it was not putting them in small, nondescript buildings,” Tommy Kleckner, Director of Indiana Landmarks Western Regional Office, says. “These really were high style intended to provide a respectful setting for people that did not have the means to care for themselves.”

The county owned the homes, also called poor farms. They housed up to 40 people at a time who worked to maintain the property, and there was one in every Indiana county. But then the government started providing welfare and federally-funded housing.

“As federal welfare became available and the improvement of care facilities, county homes have become obsolete in many instances,” Kleckner says. “Demolition is often the end result before options for reuse can be found.”

Over one third of Indiana’s county homes were demolished and many others, abandoned.

That’s why Indiana Landmarks is trying to preserve the homes.

Every year, the group releases a list of what it believes to be the 10 most endangered landmarks in the state. The list marks structures that are facing imminent threats of abandonment, neglect or deterioration.

This year, eight county homes are on the 2014 Top 10 most endangered list.

Architectural Design Second Only To The County Courthouse

The Warren County home is built in an Italianate-style. To viewers, it may seem ornate for its purpose of housing the poor, but, in fact, county homes were often built in an architectural style second only to the county courthouse.

Warren County Commissioner Steve Eberly has lived and farmed in Warren County his entire life and he’s the fourth generation from his family to do so. Now, Eberly is working to save the home for future generations.

“It’s purely a sound facility, but yet here it sits, awaiting on a combination of miracles,” Eberly says. “That combination of miracles  I would characterize as someone with the financial wherewithal to get this building running. Inside, it’s not exactly inviting, yet when you go outside, it’s purely the idyllic image of the Hoosier Midwest.”

The county home is particularly important to county historian Terri Wargo. Her grandmother stayed there along with her cousin.

“It was nice because the transition, you could bring your own furniture and things like that and her cousin had like a house in one room,” Wargo says. “My grandmother was the type, she never knew a stranger so she got along really well out there.”

Wargo says while there weren’t enough people to keep the home up and running, she thinks that people around the town would be happy to see it reused.

“We want to find someone or if not, the fate of this facility becomes the fate of many other functionally obsolete things in the Midwest,” Eberly says.

While county officials have been working to maintain the Warren County home, other county homes aren’t in as good of shape.

Seeking To Preserve A Heritage Some Would Just As Soon Forget

  • Parke County Home, Rockville

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    Photo: Indiana Landmarks

    The Parke County Home in Rockville, has a private owner.

  • parke county home

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    Photo: Bill Shaw

    County homes, like the Parke County home, were built in an ornate style.

  • parke county home hallway

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    Photo: WTIU News

    The Park County home has been neglected, causing damage

The Parke County Home in Rockville is privately owned, but neglect has made the house a remnant of it’s once grand neo-classical architecture, and the same fate could be in store for the other county homes.

“Our last choice at this point is full demolition,” Eberly says of the Warren County home. “Yet of the two or three interested parties that we’ve toured to date, it generally ends up with the conversation, if only it were smaller. That’s the conundrum we arrive at today.”

But not all the county homes are out of use.

About 20 miles north of the Warren County home, Benton County still has a working county home and there are about a dozen of those in operation across the state.

As county homes continue to be demolished or abandoned, Kleckner says fewer and fewer people realize they exist or what there purpose was.

“All county homes represent a part of Indiana’s history that we often want to gloss over,” Kleckner says. “Most would consider a poor farm not something to preserve, remember. The buildings become the tangible link to that part of our heritage. Whatever reuse that happens, the facilities, simply by standing, still are a tangible link to our history that Indiana landmarks doesn’t want to see lost.”

Landmarks is working to find the Warren County Home a buyer. They’re in talks with a group from St. Louis who could buy and repurpose the building.

But, for now, the future of that and the other county homes is uncertain.

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