Living on the Upper Peninsula in its copper mine heyday meant riding the booms and busts of metal prices.
When market crashes and mine layoffs pushed poverty onto the proud people of Houghton County, the extreme cold made homelessness deadly brutal. Since the 1870s, the county funded a poor house and a 100-acre farm to provide for the basic needs of its people when they had nowhere else to go.
It was meant to be as self sufficient as possible, and indeed the poor house and its farm was a model institution in its early years. Those who could work did, and those who could not enjoyed the view of Portage Lake. Men and women had separate quarters and had roles at the poor house in accordance with their gender and the times: men would work in the fields, or find a place in the blacksmith shop, machine shop, or stables, while women had sewing rooms and would prepare food. The farm, as of 1910, supported 43 hogs, about 50 cows, and 200 chickens. It was more than adequate to feed the ‘inmates’, as they were called, whose population ranged from about 25 to 150 in normal years. Bedrooms were especially packed, however, during the Great Depression, which put exceptional stress on the circa-1911 main building.
News reports describe some of the stories of those who found refuge here: those blinded in mining accidents; those with drinking problems; Irish and Finns who were laid off from their railroad or mine jobs and could not find other work. Keep in mind that even in the 1880s the Irish and Finnish immigrants were not even considered to be white by a large part of the country; shutting them out of work was socially accepted racism.
Many of the elderly residents of the poor farm were able to leave following Michigan’s Public Act 280 of 1939, which directed counties to care for the aging regardless of cost. These state funds helped many of the former residents find better housing; those who wanted to move into other facilities usually could. Still, some had come to think of the old farm as their home. After a visit from a food inspector in 1953, the farm was shut down—the following year saw all the farm buildings torn down. By the time the poor farm was shut down in 1968, it was home to a handful of patients with chronic illnesses and better known as an infirmary than a refuge.