Feeding Their Wards: Farming at WY State Institutions, 1931

Its been a while since we had a Friday Foodie post, so without further adieu…

It was a big job keeping the inmates at Wyoming’s institutions fed during the lean years of the Great Depression. Nearly every state institution had a farm operation in the 1930s. This allowed them to be nearly self-sufficient. Some even turned a profit on the food and forage they produced. They used the cheap and abundant inmate labor to reduce production  costs. The symbiosis benefited the inmates by teaching them a trade and building their confidence and sense of responsibility. These photos and accompanying information come from a state institutional survey photo album complied by the state in 1932. Several copies are on file in the Wyoming State Archives collection.

The Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston was the crown jewel of the productive institutions during the early 1930s. In an effort to provide affordable, quality food for the institution, a dairy herd was established in 1922.

Dairy Barn and herd at WY State Hospital (WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 47b)

Dairy Barn and herd at the Wyoming State Hospital
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 47b)

By 1930, this herd of registered Holstein cattle had grown to 41 cows whose anticipated production for the year would top 600,000 pounds of milk (approximately 75,000 gallons.) Not only did this supply the hospital with its entire dairy needs, it provided an income from the sale of surplus dairy goods and animals, which helped to defer other costs. The herd was regarded as one of the best in the Inter-mountain region. One of thier prize bulls was loaned to the University of Wyoming’s Stock Farm at Afton to help improve its Holstein herd.

5-year-old Champ C Class Producer of the US 1930 Holstein at the WY State Hospital, 1931 (WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 56a)

This 5-year-old Holstein cow in the State Hospital herd was named 1930 Champion C Class Producer of the United States. That year she produced nearly 12 gallons of milk per day!
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 56a)

In addition to the cattle herd, the State Hospital also kept a large flock of chickens to provide all of the eggs and meat served at the hospital. A large garden plot behind the superintendent’s residence supplied all of the vegetables used by the institution. The grain and hay fed to the animals was produced on the 550 acre farm purchased in 1919.

In 1929-30, the farm produced:

Hay 880 tons
Grain 8879 bushels
Rutabagas 225 tons
Cabbage 61 tons
Potatoes 9,000 bushels
Milk 884, 000 pounds (about 110,500 gallons)
Eggs 10,500 dozen
Meat 117,000 pounds

Flock of White Leghorn chickens in front of Chicken house at the Wyoming State Hospital in 1931. (WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 57b)

Flock of White Leghorn chickens in front of Chicken house at the Wyoming State Hospital in 1931. The chicken house behind them was constructed in 1930 to house 1,200 to 1,400 chickens.
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 57b)

All was not roses, though. The pigpens were unfortunately located directly behind the main building. The hospital secured $3,000 in 1931 from the State Legislature to construct new pens and move the swine down wind from the buildings to cut down on the odor permeating the site.
Pig pens at WY State Hospital, to be moved in 1932, 1931 (WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 42a)

Pig pens at Wyoming State Hospital in 1931. They were to be moved farther away (and up wind) from the main buildings in 1932 because of the stench.
(WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 42a)

The Industrial Institute (now called the Boy’s School) in Worland also maintained a productive and lucrative farming operation manned by inmates and was a model of institutional self-sufficiency. The mainstay of the Industrial Institute was its Hereford cattle feed operation. Cattle were purchased on the open market and then fattened for sale in their lots. The institution made a concerted effort to not compete with local farmers in the marketplace. A dairy herd, flock of sheep, hogs, and chickens rounded out the livestock operation at the institution.
Cattle feeding pens at the Wyoming Industrial Institute (now Boys' School) in 1931 (WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 91b)

Cattle feeding pens at the Wyoming Industrial Institute (now Boys’ School) in 1931. These Hereford steers were fattened at the Institute then sold. Feed lot operation and livestock management was seen as a business/occupational skill for the boys. 
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 91b)

Extensive gardens and large fields of sugar beets for livestock forage were also planted and the boys were employed in a small, on-site cannery where they preserved the bounty for use over the winter. This institution in particular saw their farm and livestock operations as tools to teach their wards, boys ages 16-25, life skills and a useful trade.

Back of Main Old Building showing attendant's garden, WY Industrial Institute, 1931 (WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 97b)

Back of Main Old Building showing attendant’s garden, Wyoming Industrial Institute, 1931. That year, the institution was able to raise nearly all of the food for their wards and sold the surplus for a staggering $86,700.
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 97b)

All told, sale from the excess products equaled $86,700 for the 1928-1930 biennium, more than $1.1 million dollars today! In fact it was so productive that little more than building funds and partial wages were needed from the State budget to run the entire institution by 1930, amounting to just $54,150 that year. If you account for inflation, that would be approximately $700,000 today.

The Girl’s Industrial Institute (now called the Girl’s School) in Sheridan, was a newcomer to the State, having been establish in 1920. Still, by 1931 almost all of the dairy, chicken and eggs, and many of the vegetables consumed by the 50 girls residing there were produced on site. Much of the hay and grain for the livestock was also raised on site. Like the Boy’s School, the Girl’s School used inmate labor to not only keep costs low but to provide instruction.

Chicken coop built in 1931, Girl's Industrial Institute, 1931 (WSA  BCR State Institutional Survey Album 109a)

This “thoroughly modern” chicken coop built in 1931 at the Girl’s Industrial Institute (now Girls’ School)
(WSA BCR State Institutional Survey Album 109a)

Even the Sheridan County Fish Hatchery boasted a large vegetable garden and pasture.
Barn and garden, Sheridan County Fish Hatchery, 1931 (WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 65)

Barn and garden, Sheridan County Fish Hatchery, 1931
(WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 65)

The State Tuberculosis Sanitarium (now the State Retirement Home) in Basin used its crops in a slightly different way. Because their wards were usually unable to work outdoors due to their respiratory condition, they did not have the cheap, abundant labor like the other institutions. No livestock was kept on site as they would have aggravated the delicate systems of the patients. Still, they planted acres of alfalfa and long rows of trees to keep the dust down for their patients.
WY Tuberculosis Sanitarium, 1931 (WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 122a)

WY Tuberculosis Sanitarium, 1931
(WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 122a)

What about the Wyoming Honor Farm outside of Riverton? Originally called the Penitentiary Farm, the 880-acre parcel was purchased by the Legislature in late spring 1931 and did not become fully functional for a couple of years. The original buildings were little more than shacks and inadequate for occupation, much less security. Most of 1931 was given to building a dormitory and an adequate water system, both completed with inmate labor from the State Penitentiary in Rawlins. They did manage to harvest 40 acres of sugar beets, their only product that first year, with plans to greatly increase production in the following years.

Penitentiary Farm showing on of the original buildings (right) and dormitory under construction (center), Riverton, June 1931 (WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 27a)

Penitentiary Farm showing on of the original buildings (right) and dormitory under construction (center), Riverton, June 1931
(WSA SOS State Institutional Survey Album 27a)

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1 Comment

Filed under Friday Foodie, WSA Collection Highlights

One response to “Feeding Their Wards: Farming at WY State Institutions, 1931

  1. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing
    this article and the rest of the website is really good.

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