Rockford, like many cities, has always struggled with the issue of how to care for those that are not able to support themselves. This quest began when the town first started but by the mid 1800s Winnebago County realized that a solution was needed. County officials requested and were granted permission to purchase land for the development of a Poor Farm. The first location on Elmwood Road was quickly outgrown. The Winnebago County Poor Farm was eventually relocated to the area now inhabited by the Riverbluff Nursing Home on North Main Street.
The Poor Farm would go through many changes in its history of service to the community. One of those services would include housing people deemed insane when family could no longer care for them. Research into patient records uncovered one family’s heartbreaking struggle during the early days of our county.
Richard and Ann Hargraves moved to Illinois from England in the 1840s. They settled in the area just south of Durand. Richard purchased a large amount of land and built a farm. The first trace of the family was from the burial of their three-year-old daughter Lucy Olive at Crane Cemetery on July 15, 1856. The death of a small child at the time was common but that didn’t make it any less heart-breaking.
The couple would have six more children, three girls and three boys. They spent their days like most families that lived in the county during that time period. They cleared the land, planted crops and raised livestock.
The family prospered and from all accounts seemed to be blessed. But there were cracks in the family that Richard and Ann could not have foreseen. Their oldest son Thomas started to show signs of mental illness. By 1878 Richard and Ann had no choice but to have Thomas committed to the Winnebago County Farm.
By this time, the facility had grown into a self-sustaining farm with crops and livestock. The main house was two stories and had 21 rooms. But it was a dark time in the care of the mentally ill. The common practice was to confine patients instead of treating them. The conditions were often horrible for all involved. The Hargraves family must have been desperate to consider this option for their son.
In 1875 the Superintendent of the farm, George Weaver, collaborated with Elgin Asylum to take the worst of the mentally ill patients. The farm was not equipped for the care of those who could harm themselves or others. Thomas Hargraves must have been a particularly tough case because he was transferred to Elgin immediately. Thomas would remain incarcerated for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile the rest of the Hargraves family moved on with their lives. Two of the daughters married and moved away. In 1882, 61-year-old mother Ann died and was buried next to her daughter in the Crane Cemetery. Richard left the farm to his sons and returned to England. He died there in 1895. Charles was 24 and his younger brother Walter just 20 when they took over the family farm in 1882. They also took over the care of their younger sister, Violetta. Lettie, as her brothers called her, was just 18 that year.
In 1884, the Winnebago County Poor Farm received a much needed upgrade. A huge party was held to celebrate the new facility. State’s Attorney Mr. Works attended as an esteemed guest and speaker. He called it the “best constructed public building in the state of Illinois.” The newspapers named it “the Pauper’s Palace”.
By 1894, the Hargraves family was dealing with another tragedy. Lettie – who was 30 years old that year – must have begun to exhibit some of the same behavior as their older brother. Charles and William were forced to place their sister into the County home. The records state that Lettie came in completely catatonic and unable to care for herself. The end of that year brought the news of Thomas’s death and burial at the Poor Farm cemetery.
Walter and Charles eventually divided the large farm into two plots to allow for their expanding families. Walter married Stella in 1897 and the couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Walter named one of his daughters Violet, after his sister. Charles married Ella in 1902 and the couple had three children.
Lettie continued to live at the Poor Farm for the rest of her life. She became one of the most challenging patients ever to reside there. Though she was catatonic at her arrival, her behavior quickly changed. Lettie became the most violent patient ever to live at the farm. Other patients who exhibited this degree of violent behavior were always transferred to another state-operated hospital. One can only speculate that her brothers must have had something to do with the decision to keep her at the farm.
According to the records, Lettie was so extremely violent that she was kept in solitary confinement. Orderlies would go in every morning and fight to clean and dress her. Lettie would immediately tear at her clothes, screaming and howling. The records stated the sad truth that Lettie was more like an animal than a human.
Lettie Hargraves passed away at the Winnebago County Poor Farm on May 8, 1900 at the age of 36. Walter and Charles buried her next to their mother in the Crane Cemetery just down the road from the home where she had been born.
This family’s story shines a light on Winnebago County’s history of treating our most challenging residents. The advancements and improvements that were made in the years between the commitment of Thomas in 1878 and Lettie in 1894 show a real dedication of the authorities of Winnebago County. The vital need for an institution that would house and treat our most vulnerable residences was crucial to our community. We should take great pride and inspiration that our county made that mission a priority. R.
Kathi Kresol has been researching the history of this area for over a decade. She shares the stories she discovers in her articles for the Rock River Times, in her books, and during the events she hosts. Read more of Kathi’s stories on her website www.hauntedrockford.com.