Poor Farm master plan hopes to ‘restore it to former glory’

The Poor Farm master plan is well underway, with a Land Access Program and west-barn renovation.


Katina Zentz

The Johnson County Poor House is seen on Sept. 16, 2018. This historical landmark used to house inmates in the 1800s.

Andy Mitchell, News Reporter

The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm is buzzing with activity once again as the county’s master plan for the plot of land progresses.

The renovation project on the farm, specifically the West Barn, is on schedule according to architect Dan Rice. It’s a tall order to restore the old barn, as it needs an entirely new foundation, support structures, walls, and a fresh coat of paint.

Project manager Jason Grimm, also the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Deputy Director, said now that everything is beginning to thaw after a long winter, things are going to be moving quickly for the construction crews.

“You’re going to be seeing a lot of changes in the next two to three years,” Grimm said.

RELATED: Johnson County Historical Poor Farm bringing in charitable food production, low-income housing

Rice said as the construction process went on, the crew discovered a number of things about the barn like a small cistern likely constructed before the barn was expanded generations ago, and evidence of a different color under years of layering and repairs.

“Our approach was to bring it back to its old glory,” Rice said. “Provide a space where they can have those events and people can take a look at this barn and appreciate it for what it is.”

The interior of the pale white barn was filled with red metal bars holding it together and in place like a temporary skeleton. By the time the renovation is finished, the barn will be as red as the bars instead of white.

“That’s why I like working on old buildings, they start to tell a story,” Rice said.

In 2016, Johnson County, with the help of HBK Engineering and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, started work on a 10-year master plan for the Poor Farm and finalized it in November 2017. Grimm said the future of the poor farm will include educational workshops, hands-on gardening and farming experience, and other activities available to the public.

Renovation and construction are not the only activities that the Poor Farm will be seeing in its immediate future. The county is also rolling out the Land Access Program, which will allow commercial farms to rent part of the poor farm’s acres.

One of those commercial farmers is Alfred Matiyabo with Moving Forward LLC. Matiyabo farmed for five years in Portland, Maine, and said when he relocated to Coralville in 2017 he set about continuing his work. He also previously farmed on the Poor Farm as part of the Iowa Global Food Project in 2018. Carly McAndrews and Bryant Mann with Trowel and Error Farm will also be renting as a part of the Land Access Program.

Matiyabo said in an email to The Daily Iowan he noticed a significant amount of African immigrants who would want to consume some fresh African produce. With the Land Access Program, Matiyabo said he hopes he and his siblings can expand their business into Iowa City by opening a storefront and producing their own generic and specialty produce on their rented land.

“I am blessed and overwhelmed with this opportunity that Johnson County offers to us through this Land Access Program, as for me words are not enough to express how grateful I am to have been selected and presented with this opportunity, so I am very happy,” Matiyabo said in an email to the DI

Editor’s note: The Daily Iowan previously posted an opinions article under this story’s headline. The DI regrets this error.