Soundings: 71-acre farm in Lacey sustained hundreds of young lives

Staring in 1926, hundreds of children in troubled circumstances found a home in a Lacey orphanage, thanks to private benefactors. In 1936, it all ended.

jdodge@theolympian.comMarch 30, 2014 

Here’s a little-known piece of Lacey history: Hundreds of orphans and neglected youths lived at the Lacey Children’s Farm Home between 1926 and 1936, when a fire destroyed the place.

The home, founded by the Seattle-based Washington Juvenile Protection Association survived almost exclusively on private donations, providing housing for less fortunate children in Southwest Washington.

The home opened its doors on Jan. 22, 1926, but not before the farm home withstood a court challenge from Saint Martin’s College, which ran an on-site boarding house for boys. College officials feared the orphanage would be detrimental to the neighborhood, according to a Lacey Historical Commission paper prepared by South Sound historian Lanny Weaver.

The 71-acre farm was in the southeast portion of the original Isaac Wood Donation Land Claim, Weaver said. Today the farm site is the Homewood Addition on the east side of Homann Drive in Lacey.

The home grew quickly, caring for more than 200 children in the first 18 months and housing as many as 82 children of all ages in the summer of 1927.

The need for the home grew with the advance of the Great Depression. During the depression, employees at the farm home included parents whose children had been placed in the home because of severe family poverty. Farm superintendents through the years included Clara Upton, G.A. Paulson and Fred Munz.

My father, now 93, was a Lacey farm boy who went to school with many of the children who lived at the Lacey orphanage. The old Lacey school was at the intersection of Carpenter Road and Pacific Avenue. I attended classes there in the late 1950s and early 1960s in some of the same classrooms the farm home kids and my dad used.

“We knew which kids were from the farm, but everybody in class was treated the same,” my father recalled.

CHILDREN’S STORIES

A file maintained at the Lacey Museum offers a glimpse into the history of the farm home, including a couple of short memoirs by former residents.

William E. Onstad wrote in 2009 that he and his sister, Elizabeth, were placed in the home in December 1928 when he was in the second grade.

“The first night I was placed in a room on the third floor that was used primarily for babies and small kids,” he said in a letter in the museum file. “That night was probably the worst time in my life because it stunk of stale urine and crying babies.”

A 1933 story on the farm home paints a less dreary picture of life at the home. At the time, 42 children were living there. The farm featured seven milking cows, a 4-acre garden, a flock of chickens, 200 rabbits for meat, hogs that were butchered at the farm and a steady supply of confiscated game meat, including venison and bear, supplied by game wardens in Thurston and Lewis counties.

“The older boys had to help in the field, make hay and weed the corn,” Onstad recalled.

The home also relied on food donations from the community, including an average of 10,000 quarts of canned goods, mostly fruit, annually.

Sad circumstances led to children being placed in the home from all over Southwest Washington long before the state’s official foster care system launched in the 1960s.

Some of the children were true orphans. Others came from homes broken by the death of a parent, a divorce or a lengthy illness.

Some of the children were placed in the farm home by court order, including a 15-year-old boy sent there from Pacific County juvenile court Jan. 21, 1928.

The young teen was described by the judge as a cigarette-smoking delinquent child with no proper home influence. “He’s in danger of growing up to lead an idle, dissolute and immoral life,” the judge said in his order.

The judge also ordered Pacific County to pay $12 a month to the farm home to keep him there.

FINDING NEW HOMES

One of the farm home goals was to place children in families as quickly as possible. This often led to brothers and sisters who came to the home together being separated by placement and sometimes losing contact with each other and other family members.

Former Long Lake resident Lucille Anderson, was 3 years old when she was placed in the home with four siblings. Two ran away from the home, one was adopted by an Army family, another went to live with an aunt in California, and she was adopted by a Portland, Ore., couple who didn’t want her to have contact with her brothers and sisters. The brothers and sisters weren’t reunited until late in life.

The museum file includes letters from family members still looking to reconnect.

The task is next to impossible. Farm home records went up in flames in a Nov. 30, 1936, fire that started in the attic of the boys’ dormitory around the furnace flue. It destroyed the dormitory, the living quarters for staff, administrative offices, dining hall and kitchen.

The 18 boys living in the structure were safely removed, although there was a close call or two.

“Bill Anderson, 13, was carried from his bed by State Patrolman Dave Nelson after the flames had commenced licking about the room,” The Daily Olympian reported in a next day front page story.

The boys were temporarily housed at Saint Martin’s College. The dormitory was never rebuilt, more kids were placed with foster families, and the home gradually ceased operations.

The Munz family continued to live in the original dwelling and provided foster care for several children. Fred Munz died in 1978, according to museum documents.

To learn more about Lacey History, visit the city museum Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. The address is 8291/2 Lacey St. SE, Lacey.

John Dodge:360-754-5444
jdodge@theolympian.com

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