Growing Forward

A historic Poor Farm in Iowa grows toward a sustainable future.
Johnson County Historic Poor Farm's rustic, two-sided entry sign

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, poor farms (like “poorhouses”) were built as a way of caring for people with mental illness and financial dependence, in exchange for farm work. According to the Johnson County Historical Society, the idea was that hard work and fresh air would be beneficial to the farm subjects. Though the approach is primitive by today’s standards and most similar facilities have been demolished, the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm in Iowa City, IA is exceptional in that it seeks to marry its past – featuring tours of this Nationally Registered Historic Site, including an 1861 asylum – with a sustainable future – where organic fruits and vegetables are grown and distributed to locals with food insecurity.

Visitors to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm are greeted by a rustic, two-sided sign with decorative wood pillars and a cutout of the dairy barn’s cupola. “The sign itself really does reflect the character, the history and what’s happening on the farm,” said Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, an environmental and community planner with Iowa Valley RC&D (Amana, IA), part of the team chosen by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to develop the 10-year master plan for the site’s renovation. Confluence (Des Moines, IA), a landscape architecture firm, provided initial sign sketches. The sign was configured and built by ASI Sign Systems (Grinnell, IA).

Corten, a weathered steel variety that develops a rusted patina with age, was initially chosen as the main sign material. Though Corten is popular (see ST, March 2010, page 68 and January 2014, page 65), its price tag can be prohibitive. ASI offered a less expensive aluminum option using a primer, iron flakes and chemical treatment, which renders a controlled finish. The process took place in their manufacturing facility within 60 miles of the install location. “Once we quoted the finished aluminum process, there was room in the budget for illumination, which the client valued greatly since the farm is on the edge of town,” said Bryce Carlson, sales consultant at ASI. The savings was put toward LED lighting and powering it off-grid using a solar panel. “ASI’s hard work made this sign a reality. The supervisors are over the moon about it and I appreciate the on-the-fly maneuvering that made it possible,” said Fixmer-Oraiz.

Other changes underway at the Historic Poor Farm include the construction of a farm incubator (trains farmers and helps with business plans), concepts for affordable housing, a pollinator meadow for bees and a trail that will wind through prairies and forested areas. The historic west barn and dairy barn are undergoing improvements with plans for a farmers’ market and possible agriculture museum. Combining educational opportunities with varied uses of this rich farm land, the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm is poised to serve its community well in the future.

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Signs of the Times April 2019

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