OPB premiered a new documentary that examines the history of government-funded relief institutions in Oregon – known as “poor farms” – that helped care for the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Oregon’s County Poor Farms” is the latest episode from “Oregon Experience,” an original OPB series that explores Oregon’s past and helps to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social and political fabric of the state and region.

In 1854, Oregon’s Territorial government required counties to care for their poorest citizens. Often, they were sent to live on actual working farms. For more than 100 years, Oregon’s poor farms operated in nearly every county across the state, offering a last refuge to the neediest residents.

The farms provided food, shelter, medical care, and sometimes burial services. Each farm varied depending on needs and resources, as did its treatment of residents. Some poor farms provided a safe haven for those in need while others operated more like prisons.

In 1868, Multnomah County opened the first county-owned and operated poor farm in what is now Southwest Portland’s Washington Park. Hillside Poor Farm had two dormitory buildings for men and women, separated by gender. A nursery cared for orphaned or abandoned children. The grounds also contained a chapel, laundry, workshop, two barns, outbuildings, and the superintendent’s residence.

Within a few years, Hillside had a notorious reputation. A series of investigations found that the superintendent was neglecting inmates, not providing enough food, and overcharging for expenses. Newspaper reports from 1877 detailed deplorable conditions. Hillside operated for over 40 years before finally closing in 1911, when Multnomah County opened a new facility in Troutdale.

The state-of-the-art building sat on 345 acres and operated a dairy and working farm that soon turned a profit. The poor farm’s population peaked in 1935 with over 600 residents.

That same year, of the 130,000 poor farms around the country, Oregon operated at least 17, caring for thousands of residents.

With the Great Depression though, governments became overwhelmed with an influx of transient and needy residents. Roosevelt’s New Deal, specifically the Social Security Act of 1935, brought new federal funding structures and most poor farms began to disappear.

A few facilities transformed into county hospitals and nursing homes, including Multnomah County’s Poor Farm, renamed Edgefield Manor. It operated in some form until 1982. After its closure, the county planned to tear down the old buildings, but the Troutdale Historical Society spent years fighting that decision. In 1990, McMenamins bought the property and transformed it into the popular hotel and restaurant Edgefield.

Today, most poor farms have disappeared.

Oregon’s County Poor Farms” examines this little-known history of how the state once cared for its poor. The documentary includes rare historical film footage and images and digs deep into archives across the state to uncover the stories behind Oregon’s County Poor Farms.

Featured interviews include:

  • Sharon Nesbit, Troutdale Historical Society
  • Jan Wright, archivist, Southern Oregon Historical Society
  • Megan Birk, professor of History, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  • Terry Baxter, archivist, Multnomah County Archives
  • Martin Nicholson, curator, Hoyt Arboretum
  • Marin Aurand, public historian

This new half-hour program is available to watch now online at opb.org, on YouTube or the PBS App. It will also air on OPB TV Monday, November 13 at 9 p.m.

The documentary is produced by Kami Horton and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. All “Oregon Experience” episodes are made possible by the generous support of OPB members. For more information, please visit opb.org.