The Multnomah County Archives recently acquired an invaluable donation of century-old photographs never seen by the public before.
The images date back to about 1898. The pictures show Multnomah County’s first public relief institution, known as Hillside Poor Farm and Hospital. The farm cared for the county’s most destitute residents in a sprawling facility that occupied what is now Portland’s Washington Park.
Multnomah County archivist Terry Baxter expressed excitement over the find, highlighting the significant gap in knowledge about the poor farm. “I’ve been an archivist for the county for 25 years,” says Baxter. “And almost from the beginning, people have asked about this and want to have information about the Hillside Poor Farm. We really just don’t have much.”
This collection changes that.
The donated treasure trove includes photocopies, loose images, and a scrapbook with about 70 photos of the poor farm operation.
How counties took care of their poorest residents
For decades, thousands of Oregonians received food, shelter, medical care and sometimes burial services through county poor farms.
In 1854, Oregon Territorial law made counties responsible for their poorest residents. That meant local governments were obligated to provide housing and medical care in so-called poor farms - also known as county farms, county homes and infirmaries. By 1892, the State Board of Charities and Corrections Report documented 15 county poor farms across the state. Most closed by the 1940s, but a few stayed open right up to the 1980s, often serving as nursing homes.
Poor farm history at Washington Park
Multnomah County’s Hillside Poor Farm opened in 1868 as the state’s first county-owned and operated relief facility. It provided shelter and care during a time when few social safety nets existed.
At its peak, the Hillside housed over 300 residents and operated a dairy, orchard and large vegetable gardens.
The newly donated images capture the minutiae of the farm’s daily life, showcasing scenes such as laundry hanging on a washing line and residents enjoying picnics in the grass while others lounge in chairs, one smoking a pipe.
Other photographs include views of Canyon Road, once known as the Great Plank Road. Others show both forested hillsides and cleared-over timber lands. Multiple large buildings and fruit tree orchards spread over the area, now home to the World Forestry Center, Oregon Zoo and nearby parking lots.
In one image, dozens of gravestones dot the landscape. It’s an intriguing find. Many of the thousands of people who received help at the poor farm died there and ended up in pauper’s graves on the poor farm grounds.
Records indicate there may have been at least three cemeteries, but Baxter said there is little information on the names or numbers of those buried or the locations of the graveyards, “One was pretty close to Canyon Road, south of the (buildings) at the time. That’s my best guess, but I wouldn’t say that’s a definitive answer.”
Over the years, renovations at the Oregon Zoo have unearthed previously unknown graves. In 2013, construction crews uncovered nine bodies believed to be from Hillside Poor Farm. Newspaper accounts have documented several similar finds dating back decades.
Borthwick’s legacy preserved
The Hillside Poor Farm scrapbook belonged to Alexander Elijah Borthwick, a superintendent in the 1890s.
The donation came from Alexander’s great-grandson, William Borthwick. William Borthwick said the scrapbook stayed in the family all this time, but now he wants to share it with others.
“It was time to pass it on,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Bend.
Alexander Borthwick arrived in Oregon in the 1840s and settled in Champoeg. Later he worked in railroads and mining camps. By the 1880s, he had established himself as a real estate agent in Portland. In 1896, he was appointed superintendent of the Multnomah County Poor Farm. The recently acquired photographs provide a rare opportunity to witness the daily life of the poor farm during Superintendent Borthwick’s tenure.
Baxter says the Multnomah County Archives is committed to preserving and sharing the collection with the public. He and his team will make them available online once restoration work is completed. They also hope to partner with other institutions to create a comprehensive archive of records related to the Hillside Poor Farm.
“It’s a really valuable addition because not only do other people not have this, but it really fills in a hole,” Baxter said. “A lot of researchers from different archives are going to be able to come to this and put those pieces together and have a much more accurate picture of what was going on.”
When Hillside closed in 1911, over 200 residents moved to a newly built, more modern facility in Troutdale. Today, the facility operates as McMenamins’ Edgefield, a hotel and entertainment venue.
“Oregon Experience”: Behind the scenes with producer Kami Horton.
The Multnomah County Archives donation is just one of the many fascinating stories I’m researching for my next “Oregon Experience” documentary on Oregon’s poor farms.
Over the last few months, Oregon Experience crews have captured a poor farm time capsule opening in Southern Oregon. We’ve explored Edgefield’s maze of painted rooms, dove into the Lane County Historical Society archives, and explored the Hoyt Arboretum in search of the gravesite of a poor farm resident that the newspapers called Wong Luey. Wong is just one of the thousands of poor, sick, homeless individuals who lived and died in county-funded relief homes known as poor farms.
Stay tuned for more updates and watch for the documentary coming in fall 2023.