Chapter 9: Doc and Penelope visit the Poor Farm


Doc Watkins and Miss Penelope would go out to the poor farm once a month and check on the residents. 
But they weren’t always called residents back then. Some were inmates. 

A few of the people living there were not there by choice. Some of them were held for assessment of their mental abilities. You see, Iowa law required counties to look after their 'destitute settled inhabitants’ of all ages, whether they were destitute because of: 

orphanhood, 
mental illness, 
mental disability,
physical disability, 
chronic illness, 
age-related infirmities,
financial destitution, 
or other misfortune. 

Some sick clients healed and left the poor farm. 
Senile or ill elderly folks lived there until they died or until family claimed them. 
Suspected insane citizens were held there for diagnosis and perhaps sent to the State Home for the Insane. 
Orphaned or abandoned children were adopted-out or apprenticed to a local trade at a suitable age. 
Able-bodied clients who had fallen on hard times could be contracted out to local employers. 
The rest of the folks there had to work, as they were able, for their room and board. 

The poor-farm had a Superintendent couple, the Higgins'. 
Their job was to take care of these people at the lowest cost possible, with no apologies for frugality. 

In the beginning, the taxpayers were not the only ones to pay the bill for these unfortunate souls. 
A person’s immediate family was required to help pay for the care, as they were able. 
This encouraged families to find a corner for them at home rather than pay support to the county. 

Residents that had pensions, had to surrender their pensions to the poor-farm. 

Doc Watkins would come out regularly to visit the folks at the poor-farm and check on their progress or their decline, 
as the case might be. The women, the insane, the mentally deficient and the very frail stayed in the main house, while the more able-bodied men shared cottages on the property. The main house had a detaining cell, like a jail cell, 
for the insane, used during assessment.

Barton lived in a cabin with another man. Sometimes Barton thought to himself, “Now why did I trade a cabin I had to myself, for a cabin that I have to share with a man who loves beans and snores half the night?” 

Then he would remember when he tried to chop wood. 
He could do several things, but no more chopping wood. He could sit and split kindling, but he couldn’t stand and swing an axe. He could stand if he had something to lean on, but swinging an axe was no longer possible. 

The Doctor’s maiden sister, Miss Penelope, would come along to help with the female residents. 
Sometimes she helped preserve the females’ dignity by acting as a go-between; translating troubles and remedies 
back and forth from female patient to doctor. She was like a physician's assistant. 
Sometimes though, Miss Penelope protected the doctor’s dignity. Some of the women, though afflicted with age and various disorders, still enjoyed being women and appreciated a man’s attention, even if it was medical attention. 
Some of the females there would nearly flutter when the unmarried Doc was around, trying to conjure-up afflictions 
for the attention that their imagined maladies would bring.
 
On the other side of the coin, several men there enjoyed Miss Penelope's attention. 
One man, Nevin Dweller, would tune his banjo when he saw the doctor’s car turn in the lane to the poor-farm. 
That banjo was the only thing he owned, other than two changes of clothes, 
a souvenir from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and a pocket watch that told the correct time twice a day. 
Mr. Dweller would sing ‘Oh, Suzanna’, and frail the banjo as the doc and his sister would walk toward the main house. 
Apparently, Mr. Dweller had ambitions that outmatched his age and his station in life. 

Barton liked Miss Penelope too, but for a different reason. When she asked how he was feeling, he would reply, 

“Fit as a fiddle and ready to marry your mother so you can be my daughter.” 

She would protest, saying ‘You’re too ornery to marry my widowed mother. 
She’s far too delicate for an old badger like you.” Then she would smile. 

Sometimes though, Miss Penelope didn’t seem interested in seeing him, and avoided Barton and almost everyone else too.  Mrs. Higgins noticed this, but Barton understood why. 

Mrs. Higgins was an important part of the poor farm; the females at the farm were her flock. She directed the life of the women there; their work and their social life. Mrs. Higgins puzzled about Miss Penelope; respectable and very capable at her medical duties, but so mercurial. One time she was friendly and the next time she was distant. People at the poor farm talked about this, as did the folks in town. Most women attributed her range of emotions to her being single, but wishing she were married. 

Back to Miss Penelope and Barton. They had two secrets between them. Barton knew something about Miss Penelope, but she didn't know he knew. To balance the equation, Miss Penelope knew something about Barton, but he didn't know she knew. Strange, no? 
 
Occasionally, to Mr. Dweller’s dismay, Barton and Miss Penelope would walk down to the Raccoon River on the west end of the poor farm to fish. Barton knew that if she wore dungarees on the visit, she wanted to fish. 
The poor farm had several pull-wagons used for chores. Barton would put the fishing poles and things in the wagon 
and pull it as close to the river as he could, then they would carry in the gear the rest of the way. 
There was an inlet where a small creek entered the river. That was the best place to fish. 
Sometimes they might catch catfish or pan fish, but mostly they fished for bullhead; ‘little catfish’ as Miss Penelope called them. 
The fish went into a burlap sack and Barton would put it in the wagon and pull it back to the cleaning shed, 
where the residents plucked chickens, butchered meat and cleaned fish. 

Mrs. Higgins would have the kitchen crew lay the cleaned bullheads in loaf pans, put butter, salt and pepper on them and bake them until tender. Folks at the poor farm were always glad to see Barton go fishing, because he had a knack for fishing and a secret bait recipe that worked. Even Mr. Dweller had to admit it, no matter how jealous he was of Barton when Miss Penelope came to visit. 

One day they were walking down to the river when Miss Penelope said, 

“Well, we finally painted the plastered wall on the north side of the jail room in the basement.” 

“Did you now? It’s all painted? I was there when they did the work and offered to paint it, but they said no. Behind that plaster is the entrance to the inmate tunnel to the courthouse. I’m sure you heard about it.” 

“Yes, we did, said Penelope. “Was the tunnel filled-in or what?” 

“Nope;" said Barton "it was just bricked up on your side and left empty. I used to go down there when the sky turned green and it looked like a tornado might come. It was also a good place to cool off when it got so danged hot in August. Sometimes, people would bring me some root vegetables or fruit, and I stored them down there 'til I could use them. It was a handy place to have.” 

“Hmm; Barton, I figured that both ends of the tunnel were closed up at the same time.” 

“Well, you figured wrong.” said Barton. 

Eric J. Rose
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