The following is a memoir written in 1986 by Carl C. Johnston, a reprint from the Old Fort News 1986, provided by The History Center, Fort Wayne courtesy of Marilyn Horrell. The memoir, which includes some recollections of his aunt, Gladys Marie Young of Fort Wayne, concerns his youth at the Allen County Asylum under the superintendency of Carl’s grandfather, William H. Johnston, who governed the institution from 1908 to 1920.
THE ALLEN COUNTY ASYLUM
The Allen County “Poor Farm,” as it was originally called, was established in 1853 and was first located in the wilderness of section 29 of Wayne Township (in the area of present-day Elmhurst High School, north of Lower Huntington Road). In that year George L. Parker was employed to keep the paupers at the Poor Farm for an annual sum of $600, and John A. Robinson was retained to build a house for the inmates for $750.
These facilities were enlarged in 1854 and again, extensively, in 1860, during the directorship of James M. Read. In these years the director was required to furnish a team of horses, a wagon and harness, four cows and such farming equipment as would be necessary. The county, in exchange, paid Read $800 and furnished clothing and provisions for the inmates.
In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, the entire facility was moved closer to Fort Wayne. An infirmary was built as the centerpiece to the new farm, in the area just west of the present-day Bluffton Road Bridge, in what today is known as the Indian Village neighborhood and the Quimby Village Shopping Center. The new infirmary building was completed in June 1865, for $14,468, and James Read, the former overseer of the Poor Farm, was named Superintendent of the Allen County Asylum, as it was now called.
Expansion of the infirmary space was again required in 1871, and under Superintendent John Spice provisions were made to offer care “for the convenience and better management of the different classes of inmates” (History of Allen County, 1880, p.54).
This is the facility that, in 1902, William Johnston came to superintend. Today, in Allen County, the descendant of the old county Poor Farm and Asylum is the Irene Byron Health Center.
Grandpa taught us that the proper name was Allen County Infirmary, not the Poor Farm. He was superintendent there from March 1, 1908 to 1920. The institution which I shall refer to as the Infirmary, was located south of Fort Wayne, Indiana, on the Bluffton Road between Brooklyn Avenue and the Engle Road. A school, commonly referred to as the Poor Farm School, was located on the southwest corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Bluffton Road. South of the school, and facing the Bluffton Road, was the house of the Superintendent and his family. It was a brick structure with a large front porch and a basement in which all the cooking was done for the employees and the family; a main floor with a large entrance room, open stairway, parlor, dining room, two bedrooms and Grandpa’s office; a second floor with five bedrooms and one bath; and an attic reached by a rear stairway. The attic was floored and had a large open copper-lined water storage tank and lots of trunks, boxes, clothes, hats, furniture and miscellaneous discards.
The Main building was south of the Superintendent’s house and farther back from the road. The north wing was for women, the south for men. The center section was reception room, dining room and kitchen. There was a wide front hall connecting the two wings and the reception room. It was in this hall that the dead were laid out to await the undertaker after they had been cleaned and clothed in a new suit of long white cotton underwear. I remember that during the influenza epidemic there were several bodies at one time waiting to be picked up.
Behind the Main Building and connected to it with a covered porch was the Insane Ward. North of the Main Building was the Power House and Laundry. South of the Main Building was the Bakery and farther south were the horse and cattle barns, the horse barn being nearest the road.
To the west of the Power House and some distance back on a hill, was a small four-room cottage with summer kitchen, hand pump and outside toilet. My parents lived here part time and part time in the Superintendent’s house. Far to the south across the field, we could see the Pest House, a hospital for communicable diseases. It was not part of the Infirmary. Looking to the west from the hill, we could see the Wabash Railroad, see the steam from the train whistle and, later, hear the sound.
Next to the school along Brooklyn Avenue was the orchard. It was on the women’s side and they sometimes walked there.
The front yard of the Infirmary was a lawn with flowerbeds and elm trees, all enclosed along the front with a rather high ornamental iron fence. I climbed it many times and hung on it waiting for someone to come back from town and maybe bring what my Grandfather called a “poke” of candy from Clapsattle’s Drug Store at 2514 Broadway. Outside the fence was the interurban tracks, then the Bluffton Road and the St. Mary’s River. Across the river was Foster Park. Looking north up the road toward the bridge leading to Broadway was the Orphans’ home located between the road and the river.
As background you should remember that the whole family lived in one house with six active bedrooms and only one toilet which had two doors, an overhead tank with pull chain and a hanging overhead electric bulb. The bathroom was large with tub and washbasin. Now with at least nine people in the family you can understand what a busy place that must have been.
The food for the family was moved from the kitchen to the dining room on the main floor with a “dumb waiter.” It was a little hand-operated elevator. Meals were always served at the appointed time. It you were not there on time, too bad; you waited until the next one although Auntie Rook or someone could usually provide at least a cookie. Always the table was set with white linen cover and linen napkins and Grandma’s silverware. Grandma or Grandpa always said grace before eating. Arguing at the table was not approved. The hand-cranked telephone hung on the dining room wall. Adda played the piano in the parlor after dinner and sometimes everybody sang. It was mostly church music that they sang.
Nearly every employee lived and ate at the Infirmary. Their rooms were on the second floor of the men’s and women’s wings. The food for the family and the 28 or so employees was prepared in the basement of the Superintendent’s house. The outside basement entrances was a wide set of steps leading down into a hall. To the left was a room with a kitchen sink and a roller towel where the men could wash up. I remember one time there was a flap because a young farmhand was seen squeezing pimples out on the towel. To the right was the employee’s dining room with a long table seating 12 on each side. Alongside was the kitchen where the cook and some patients prepared the food. My mother was cook part of the time. Her salary was $10 a month. I think the Superintendent received $100 per month and Grandma received $50 as Matron.
A lady employee by the name of Mrs. Mooney worked as the laundress. She was quite large and ate much at the table. She had a daughter named Mary Alice who, if living would be about seventy in 1985. Mrs. Mooney would load Mary Alice in the baby buggy and push her all the way into Fort Wayne and bring her back the same way.
Bill Moore was a popular employee. He was a red head and a veteran. I think he served at the Mexican Border and also in World War I. I have been told that originally a plot was laid out at Covington Cemetery to be used for the free burial of veterans. Bill Moore was buried without charge but after that all were required to pay.
In the reception room of the Main Building, just inside the front doors, was a table where employees played cards every evening. These were loud, table-knocking card games. Euchre was the popular game. Patients also played a great deal of cards. Thick, worn-out decks of cards were a common sight. I never saw or heard anything to indicate that anyone played for more than the love of a great game. When my grandfather lived on the farm, he and Grandma would not permit playing cards in the house or barn, but within sixty days after he moved to the Infirmary he began playing cards and enjoyed it all the rest of his life.
When guests were present, they always praised the bread. Assisted by one or two patients, William Otting, the baker, and later Walter Erne, baked the bread. I think they baked some dinner rolls that could be pulled apart for special occasions, but the basic product was large loaves of bread. On rare occasions Grandpa would bring a loaf of Perfection bread from town and we ate it like cake.
When my father reached his last years he one time said that he thought of the County Farm as a friendly, comfortable place.
The above information was revised and edited by Cindy Cornwell.