By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
As a child, were you ever told that wanting a special toy or dress or bike would land the whole family on the poor farm? I’m not sure it was said specifically to me, but I have heard it said. I wondered where these farms were and who had to go there, but never really got an answer, until now. Did you know that New Braunfels had a poor farm? I certainly didn’t, and I grew up here.
I think the farm location shocked me the most. A farm. In town. Okay, it was actually located in Comal Town, close to what is now Landa Park, but only a mile and a half from Main Plaza. The area was rural farmland when the county commissioners created it, and Comal Town was not part of New Braunfels. Let’s start over.
As long as people have inhabited the earth, there have been people of lesser means – the indigent or poor people. Many were poor because of unfortunate circumstances, illness or old age. Continental Europe followed Spanish traditions where families and the church charities were responsible for helping the needy. Within English society, responsibility for care of the poor was given to local authorities and families, but with government oversight.
Pauper care in Texas was rooted in Spanish tradition that expected the church, charities and families to care for the needy. The churches did the best they could. With the formation of the Republic of Texas 1836, care for those in need changed to a system rooted in English poor law. The new republic enacted laws that organized courts and defined their duties. One law specified that it was the “duty of said board of commissioners to provide at the expense of the county, for the support of indigent, lame, and blind persons, who are unable to support themselves.” Support came as both outside support (money to help them in their homes) or inside, which meant living in an almshouse or on a poor farm. After Texas gained statehood, the act was modified in 1846 to include a provision for responsibility of pauper burials.
Those who came to Texas from Europe banked all they had to make a new life in this wonderful land. The risk was high and there was no Plan B. If things went wrong, they were in trouble. Illness, snake bites, childbirth, even riding a horse could create a traumatic change of events. Losing a spouse to childbirth or illness often split up families. Those with frailties, no means of support and advanced age were sent to the poor farm and children went to an orphanage. The indigent of early New Braunfels were usually widows or of very advanced age. They were granted support of about $6 monthly.
After the Civil War, there was much suffering that churches and charities could hardly keep up. The Texas Constitution, amended in 1869, provided for the establishment of the county labor poorhouses. It was not until 1897 that Comal County Comissioners voted to establish a poor farm in New Braunfels. They voted to purchase fourteen acres of land from Louis Moeller for $1350. The land was located in the vicinity of the Landa Estates, bordered by Market (now Torrey), LibertyAvenue, Mulberry Avenue and the Comal River. The county authorized the building of three houses of board and batten construction. The houses were located on Lots No. 74 & 82 up front on Market. Mr. George Lang was hired to be the manager of the poor farm. He was allowed to live rent-free in the middle house and was expected to feed all of the paupers sent to the farm on 20 cents per day. Approximately eleven and a half acres of the property was leased back to Mr. Moeller for cultivation.
The poor farm continued to operate over the years in spite the MKT Railroad cutting through the property. Albert Marion was manager for twenty-four years. After his death in 1934, his nephew Milton C. Marion took the job. The poor farm had been very important in helping many people make it through the depression, being able to work and support the families.
In 1934, the Social Security Act changed indigent care forever and the need began to dwindle. I could still find M.C. Marion was listed as poor farm manager in 1940, but not after that. In 1936, Harry Landa sold his park to the City and the Landa Estates developed on property that was once poor farm. People still resided in the old poor farm houses in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Time moved on and in 1961 the City County Health Department took up residence in one of the white board and batten Torrey Street houses. If you had to get vaccinations or health cards between 1961 and 1974, that is where you went. At the same time, the county warehouse occupied barns on the same poor farm property between the railroad and Torrey Street. After the Health Department moved to the old Naval Reserve building on Comal Street, the County Probation department had some programs there. The two-acre poor farm property changed hands in 1980 when Henk Paving moved in. The last board and batten structure was recently destroyed to make way for parking.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; https://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1467&context=ita
Caption: Map indicating the location of the Comal County Poor Farm