One of loneliest places in all of McLean County is the Poor Farm Cemetery located about five miles south of downtown Bloomington. This one-acre plot serves as the final resting place for several hundred unfortunate souls. Beginning around 1879 and into the early 1930s, those buried included the penniless, the neglected, the mentally ill and physically disabled, as well as vagrants struck and killed by freight trains, unidentified murder victims and abandoned newborns.
Today, this “potter’s field” is isolated, unkempt and rarely visited, a setting somehow illustrative of the many unhappy circumstances surrounding the lives and deaths of those buried there.
Established in 1860 under the auspices of the Board of Supervisors (the precursor to the County Board), the McLean County Poor Farm cared for those unable to care for themselves. This institution eventually consisted of 350-plus acres of prime farmland, with a 20-acre site just west of U.S. 51 home to the superintendent’s quarters, housing for the “inmates” (as residents were called well into the 20th century) and various outbuildings.
At the Poor Farm, the able-bodied were expected to lend a hand bailing hay, gardening, milking, canning and the like. Less than a decade after the end of World War II, the cluster of buildings became the county-run Maple Grove Nursing Home, which remained in operation into the 1970s.
Back in 1879, the county decided to establish of a pauper’s cemetery on the Poor Farm grounds, and an acre just west of the buildings was set aside for that purpose. From the beginning, the cemetery interred not only Poor Farm residents, but also those from the wider world who had no recourse to a proper burial.
Today, the cemetery is a scrubby square of green in the middle of a plowed field just southeast of the county’s Animal Control Center on County Road North 1375 E. Road/Morris Avenue, and west of the still-standing superintendent’s house. County workers mow the grass and weeds every so often, and a few windswept trees are all that serve as ornamentation.
Prior to the opening of this “God’s acre,” it’s presumed most Poor Farm residents and other down-on-their-luck folk were laid to rest at the free ground sections of what is now Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.
At the county farm, the dead were placed in plain wooden caskets in graves often dug by fellow residents. The earlier markers were probably wood slats, though later graves featured concrete slabs adorned with nothing but a number — no names, dates of birth and death, or epitaphs. In 1930, Poor Farm Superintendent Arthur Jones (who served in that position from 1913 to 1933) said the cemetery featured 173 graves with concrete slabs and more than 300 others without the benefit of such markers.
Each grave offers a sad story unto itself. “The death of Miss Kate Dagon occurred at the Poor Farm at 8 o’clock Sunday night,” read a brief Pantagraph notice of May 10, 1892.
“She had been blind for about 20 years and was one of the oldest inmates [around 75 years of age] of the county house.”
On Nov. 28, 1891, the partially decomposed body of an unidentified male was found in a cornfield east of Bloomington. Foul play was suspected because there were cuts to the head and under the chin.
Like so many others laid to rest in the cemetery, no one claimed this John Doe.
Poor Farm resident “Big Henry” Coolidge was buried on March 20, 1899. He’d spent 12 years as a ward of the county, and his nickname came from the fact he weighed something like 325 pounds. “It was impossible to obtain a coffin large enough for him,” The Pantagraph noted, “and he was interred in a specially constructed box and in a grave double the usual size.”
On May 22, 1915, an unidentified man about 50 years old wearing a dark suit threw himself in front of a Big Four (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway) freight train several miles east of Bloomington.
The next day his remains were buried at the Poor Farm.
One of the last known burials at this saddest of cemeteries was made in the fall of 1930 when the body of an unidentified newborn, perhaps murdered by a blow to the head, was found at the Bloomington city dump. “Slain Baby’s Body Given Number and Buried in County Farm Grave,” read the Sept. 8 Pantagraph headline.
The infant’s concrete slab simply read “165.”