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Landmarks & Legacies: Denton County's Poor Farm treated tenants kindly

America’s poor were punished for their poverty in poorhouses, a system rooted in 17th century English law. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s famous teacher, came from an infamous Massachusetts poorhouse.

Denton County’s symbols of civilization included its first courthouse, built just after Texas gained statehood in 1846; the first jail, built in 1861; and the Poor Farm, created in 1883.

Poor farms were agricultural community poorhouses in 65 of Texas’ 254 counties. Denton’s Poor Farm, on the north side of Mingo Road between Collins and Laney Roads, was supervised by a full-time superintendent who guaranteed faithful execution of duties with a $1,000 bond and yearly inspections. He received a salary; His wife washed, sewed and cooked without compensation. The farm started with four white tenants and one tenant of color, each paid $8.33 per month from farm profits.

The first superintendent, Capt. J.A. Kinnin, left Denton to manage Dallas’ Poor Farm. William Roland Laney became the second superintendent in 1892. The county provided 375 acres of land, farming tools, implements, cows and mules. Laney’s contract paid $40 per month, requiring him to provide a horse, sell farm products, collect rent for 25 acres, and deliver proceeds to the county. Laneys’ family lived in the main house; tenants lived in smaller houses.

County commissioners instructed Laney to run the Poor Farm as a prudent farmer and to care for paupers in a kind and humane manner, which was progressive in 1892. Commissioners walked a fine line between doling out charity, which would have been viewed negatively by constituents, and providing a much-needed social service.

The superintendent’s job was tough. Many tenants were elderly or mentally/physically disabled. Widows without children sometimes became paupers. Because everyone couldn’t work, those who could worked harder.

Superintendent Laney made the Poor Farm self-supporting. His prudence led the county to pay $367.30 to bore a well in 1893, and to purchase six pigs and a bull in 1897. Laney remained superintendent until 1908. G.W. Pugh followed Laney until his death on the Poor Farm in 1909. W.B. Brown followed Pugh.

Despite commissioners’ good intentions, the farm carried a stigma. When Jim Laney wrote a 1982 master’s paper about the Poor Farm, he couldn’t interview surviving tenants because of their embarrassment.

The Poor Farm became obsolete after the 1935 Social Security Act shifted responsibility for elderly and disabled to the federal government. County commissioners sold the land in 1948.

Most poor farms had cemeteries because of the high death rate for sick or disabled tenants. The cemetery at the southwest corner of Mingo and Laney Roads was reportedly bulldozed. According to local historian D.J. Taylor, at least 15, but probably many more, gravesites were covered.

Laney’s grandson, William Roland Laney, III was the local architect for Fairhaven, a progressive 1960s retirement home now being restored. Laney’s great-grandson, Jim Laney, just retired after 34 years at the University of North Texas as the fully tenured chair of Teacher Education and Administration.

Denton’s Poor Farm illustrates how Denton County cared for vulnerable citizens in the 1890s. A 1989 Southwestern Historical Quarterly article concluded that the continued struggle to care for the poor underscores a lack of progress since days when people feared “winding up on the poor farm.”

Jeff Woo/DRC 

Six-year-old Vincent Espinosa, left, reads to Guyer High School student Rachel Weidman at South Branch Library, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Denton, Texas. South Branch Library sets aside time and space for peer tutoring every Wednesday afternoon. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade can get homework help on core subjects, like math and English, from qualified volunteer high school students. For more information, or to volunteer, visit http://bit.ly/dplteens.

Fourth man accused of raping 15-year-old in Pilot Point pleads guilty

NOTE: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect word in the final quote from the victim's mother. It has been corrected. 

The last of four men accused of raping a 15-year-old girl in Pilot Point pleaded guilty Wednesday to a third-degree felony charge of enticing a child.

Xavier Scott, 21, has been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and serve 10 years’ probation after his attorney reached a plea agreement with Denton County prosecutors.

The plea Wednesday afternoon inside Judge Brody Shanklin’s 211th District Courtroom ended a trail of guilty pleas to the same offense and punishment for Scott, Treymon Johnson, Desmen Crawford and DaCoven Bailey.

“It will never be over for my daughter,” the victim’s mother said in court Wednesday while standing next to one of the prosecutors assigned to the case.

She said her daughter didn’t leave their home for eight months after she was raped in the summer of 2017. She said her daughter lived in cycles of panic, isolation, anger and sadness.

All four men were arrested by Pilot Point police during the winter of 2017. Police said the men raped the 15-year-old in July 2017. They were indicted last fall on sexual assault of a child.

Starting in mid-July with Crawford, 22, three of the men pleaded guilty. Crawford pleaded guilty to enticing a child. Bailey, 21, pleaded guilty to the same charge in early August. Johnson, 22, pleaded guilty to enticing a child in mid-August.

Scott was the last to hear the mother read the victim’s statement to him about how her daughter’s rape devastated her husband and children.

“This is my fourth time giving this statement,” she said. “And I am angry.”

Bailey and Scott, both noteworthy in the Denton area for playing high school sports, lost opportunities to play college football after their arrests.

“What you’re feeling is only a fraction of what [my daughter] has gone through,” the mother said in court Tuesday.