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Effort underway to preserve Johnson County home that once served the poor

(Radio Iowa) – Not far from Iowa City, Johnson County officials are trying to preserve a 19th century farm that was once a home for the poor and mentally ill by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places. Grants coordinator Mickey Miller outlines the county’s plans for a piece of history many have tried to forget — poor farms.

“People who either didn’t have resources or they were mentally or physically disabled,” Miller says. “The idea was that they would be housed here, but they would work, basically, to pay for their room and board.” The white-painted building that served as a mental asylum beginning in the 1860s is already on the historical registry.

The county hopes to also preserve the surrounding barns, the fields where residents worked and the cemetery where they are buried. At a meeting of the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission, county supervisor Janelle Rettig says the preservation effort is years overdue.

“Definitely, it’s getting pressure on both sides, you heard people here that want it developed and put county buildings and other things out there,” Rettig says. “I just think there’s not that much land left and that we probably ought to hang on to it.” The process of preparing and submitting the nomination to the National Park Service is expected to last until next summer.

The self-sustaining farm still had residents into the 1960s. Rettig says it’s a part of history that’s important to preserve. “Like a lot of parts of history, if you look back on them with modern eyes, you’re pretty embarrassed by what we did to people,” Rettig says.

“And I think if you forget your history, you’re likely to repeat it.” A place on the National Registry will allow the county to apply for grants to restore the farm buildings and surrounding cropland, which is currently being rented to a private farmer.