Majestic stone structure was a refuge for the poor

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The doors of the three-story native-limestone structure opened in 1890 to welcome the less fortunate in the area. The Marion County Poor Farm was built as a place of shelter and comfort for the poor and disabled on 160 acres of farmland located seven miles southwest of Marion.

“Back in those days, they called the poor farm an asylum, and they called the head man a superintendent,” said Nancy Marr, who lives in the historic home built of limestone from Florence and located southeast of Marion.

“The superintendent ran the place and had a wife, who cooked for the residents. Today, they would call them clients or residents. But back then, they were called inmates, even though some of them might have been blind, disabled or widows with children.”

A refuge for the poor

In the early days of Kansas statehood, individual counties typically were responsible for caring for the poor. When populations were small, the poor were often housed by local families, who were reimbursed by the county.

As the counties grew and the needy population escalated, poor farms were established around the state, such as the one built in rural Marion.

It was first known as the Marion County Poor Asylum, and the name was later changed to the Marion County Poor Farm.

In 1888, the county voted to build the home on ground it had purchased in 1877 for that purpose.

“They chose the site because it’s in the middle of the three towns-Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody-and it’s on high ground,” Marr said.

Although $10,000 was appropriated for the ground and building, the entire sum was not used.

“It’s miraculous, unbelievable,” Marr said about the structure built with exterior walls about 2-feet thick.

A local stone mason joined other masons hired to work on the county poor farm structure, said Cynthia Blount, director of the Marion City Historical Museum.

“This imposing stone residence was built with one of the county’s well-known stone masons, Fred Schaeffler of Hillsboro, cutting and shaping the stone with his artisan’s hammer and chisel,” according to one historical document at the museum.

Why did the county choose to build such a magnificent building for the homeless?

“They were so humanitarian and so full of good will,” Marr said. “It’s a precious building based on that fact alone, because most big-city poor farms were rambling, wooden, run-down buildings in horrible conditions.”

Construction on the building began around 1888, and historical records indicate it was finished in spring 1890.

“That’s before today’s technology, so that’s impressive just in itself,” Marr said. “They built a three-story building with a huge attic that’s never been finished.”

Self-sustaining operation

The poor farm was self-sustaining, with residents working in the fields to bring in an income. By 1901, the farm was paying an average of $200 per year to the county treasury after expenses, according to “Marion County Past and Present” by Sondra Van Meter.

At that time, six women and six men were living in the home built with about 40 rooms, 80 windows and a total of five bathrooms.

The superintendent’s quarters were on the first floor, and a total of 12 resident bedrooms were located on the second floor. Women lived in individual bedrooms, and the men lived in larger rooms called dormitories.

From accounts of former residents, the atmosphere in the home was positive-canaries sang in bird cages, house plants decorated the rooms, and women quilted and made rag rugs.

“This was a special place,” Marr said. “There were mentally ill people, and they had to use restraints, but they weren’t in the majority.”

Unwed pregnant women found refuge at the home until their babies were born, but the poor farm did not operate as an orphanage.

“They did separate the children,” Marr said. “It was a good idea for them to take the children out. Hillsboro eventually built a children’s home very similar to this building.”

A cycle of changes

Through its history, the name of the home changed to the Marion County Rest Home and eventually was called Cedar Rest in the early 1900s.

As a home for the elderly, Cedar Rest closed in the early 1960s.

“The county resisted it being closed by the state, so they did a big remodeling job in 1952,” Marr said.

“They did a lot to keep it open. They spent $32,000-put in a concrete floor, painted and put in an elevator. But 10 years later, it had to be condemned in 1962. They had a big auction-the furniture and the farm implements. Nobody wanted the house-it was a white elephant-but they wanted the land.”

A new county nursing home called Cedar Rest was built in Peabody to replace the former Marion Cedar Rest. The elderly residents were moved to the new facility by 1964.

The former county poor farm and surrounding acreage was purchased by a family from the area and rented to tenants at one time.

“It just went downhill fast,” Marr said. “Kids broke windows and set fires.”

Vandalism and sporadic periods of vacancy took their toll on the once-proud structure.

The next owners were Art and Virginia Miles, who purchased the home and 21/2 acres. They turned the Marion landmark into a restaurant called Cedar Villa in 1968.

During the remodeling, walls separating some of the rooms on the first floor were removed to open the space for diners, two bathrooms were put in, and a new furnace was installed. Cedar Villa closed about one year later, Marr said.

A former Hutchinson pastor purchased the home and put asphalt shingles over the original wood shingles, Marr said. He planned to use the facility as a youth center for girls, but his dream never materialized.

Current owner arrives

Marr and her husband were living in Wichita with their twin girls and two sons when they purchased the house and 21/2 acres in 1973 from the former pastor.

“It was run down with broken windows and broken doors,” Marr said. “It needed a lot of work. My husband was so handy, and he had a lot of friends who helped.”

At first, the family used the former poor farm as a weekend get-a-way from their busy lives in Wichita. But eventually they settled into their country home.

“We had a lot of enthusiasm about the home,” Marr said. “We had a lot of people come out. They thought it was such a wonderful place.”

Remodeling included sandblasting the stone walls and installing new wiring and plumbing on the first floor and in the basement. The doors, windows and ceilings on the second floor were replaced, and beds were moved into the second-floor bedrooms.

“I think 1974 was actually the first year we spent a winter here,” Marr said. “It was real funny, like going back 100 years ago. It doesn’t have many closets, because people didn’t have possessions back then.”

In addition to raising their family, the couple opened their home to others. At one time it was a church retreat center; later, it served as a youth hostel.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people have come through here,” Marr said about her visitors.

In 1978, Marr and her husband divorced, and she became the sole owner and caretaker of the house.

In the winter months, she lives in the lower section of the house, situated about 5 feet below ground level with many windows for light.

“I have area heaters,” Marr said. “It’s warm and comfortable.”

During the warmer months of spring, summer and fall, she lives on all floors of the home.

“I bought an air conditioner, but I haven’t had to use it yet,” she said the end of July.

Marr uses the former poor-farm kitchen on the lower level as her own. Another room on that floor was once used as the poor-farm laundry room. The former laundry chute is still evident along one of the walls in the room.

“This basement has nice cement floors that have never been cracked,” Marr said.

As she walked from the first floor to the upstairs bedrooms, Marr said the stair treads built over a century ago are still solid with no creaking sounds.

Uncertain future

Enduring health problems in recent years, Marr has had trouble taking care of the home.

“As far as decorating or remodeling, that ceased for a couple of years,” she said. “Four years ago, it was a pretty comfortable place. Now, it’s half as good as it was. I’m just overwhelmed. I can’t do everything.”

Marr said she has plans and dreams for the future of the former county poor farm. On her list are wall papering and a museum.

“My last project is going to be a museum here,” Marr said. “A lot will be Mennonite handiwork that they don’t do anymore. I’ve been collecting for several years. I think the Mennonite heritage needs to be preserved, and that’s my gift to the community.”

With its illustrious past as a poor farm, nursing home, restaurant, retreat and family home, the house has become intertwined with her life like the branches in the willow tree she planted on the property.

Any attempts to sell the home or leave have fallen aside.

“God kept bringing me back,” Marr said. “I don’t know if I even see it as a home. I guess I’m a caretaker, because I don’t think it really belongs to me. It belongs to the county.”

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