The Poor Farm Property Today: A Lost Cemetery, Solar Power, and a Breakthrough in Housing

Updated: 4 days ago

My post from May 18 looked at the history of the Marion County poor farm, and its location on the northwest side of downtown Indianapolis. As noted in that post, the property a 21st and Tibbs was transferred to the Central State Hospital for use as a farm colony in 1938. The farm colony was later closed and transferred back to Marion County in 1969. After this, the property was subject to several different uses. The Google Maps view below shows the poor farm property today, with the former location of the residential facilities discussed in the previous post marked by the red box. Tibbs Avenue is on the right-side of the image, and 21st Street is at the bottom.

The northwestern and western portion of the property remained undeveloped for many years, aside from some maintenance and pole barn type structures on the site of old poor house facilities. In 2013 the land was cleared of brush and trees and a large solar farm was constructed on the site. The property is owned by Georgetown Realty, LLC, an entity which appears to be a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the solar farm is used for the benefit of the Motor Speedway and became operational in June of 2014. While the IMS owned the land, the equipment was operated by another company.


The northeastern portion of the property is occupied by the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, a transitional housing and addiction recovery center. This facility opened in 2001. Previously, the building at this site had been occupied by the Pleasant Run Children’s Home, an institution which had its beginnings in Indianapolis in 1867 as an orphanage. Over the years its role changed to provided residential care for troubled youth, but the facility went bankrupt in early 2001, leading to the Salvation Army purchasing the property. Just north of that is Noble Business Enterprises.


The Experimental Development: Operation Breakthrough


The southern portion of the Poor Farm property became subject to an experimental development in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s called Operation Breakthrough. Breakthrough was a federal program spearheaded by George Romney who was the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was intended to integrate a variety of income and economic classes within a federally supported housing project. A series of nine cities were chosen as test locations for this project, and a variety of developers were selected to construct a diverse collection of housing options. Indianapolis Mayor Richard Luger also supported the project in the midst of his larger UNIGOV movement. Several other cities were also selected for these developments, including Memphis, Kalamazoo, St. Louis, Sacramento, and Jersey City.

Operation Breakthrough Indianapolis #indyturns200
Credit: City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development, Indiana Historical Society

The housing unit would use what the Indianapolis News described on April 24, 1970, as “new techniques for the production of industrialized housing more rapidly and economically than is presently possible with conventional construction methods.” Recreational and educational facilities would also be included in the development, with a 10-acre parcel directly northwest of the Tibbs and 21st intersection, which maps suggest used to be a cemetery, being used for a city park.

The city's Department of Metropolitan Development emphasized that the units being constructed for the project would be sold, not rented, and that apartments would be purchased on a “co-operative basis.” Scholz Homes, Inc. of Toledo, Ohio began to produce the components for the Indianapolis Breakthrough development. Scholz was using a sectional system which was produced at their Toledo plant for assembly on-site in Indianapolis. National Homes Corp. of Lafayette, Indiana was also producing structures for Indianapolis. As described in a 1971 edition of the HUD newsletter, National Homes was using “14 foot wide factory produced volumetric module system primarily directed to townhouse, garden apartments, and ow, and medium, and high-rise buildings.”


Mayor Lugar continued to express support for the project (see letter above to HUD Secretary Romney from the Indianapolis Mayoral Archives), and stated on August 30, 1971 that the project “is yet another example of the public-private co-operation fostered by my administration to encourage new industry and business, additional jobs and increased tax base for Indianapolis.” Lugar also said that companies involved with construction would relocate to Indianapolis, and tax revenues from the property would total almost $140,000. The program for the groundbreaking ceremonies on December 16, 1970, described the development as follows:

“Operation Breakthrough is a program designed to utilize modern techniques of production, marketing and management to provide housing for all income levels through a partnership of labor, consumers, private enterprise, and local, State and Federal Governments.”

However, things did not go as planned. Opposition came from the neighborhoods adjacent to the property, who felt the development would impact property values. Other critics, including the Indianapolis News editorial board, criticized the government’s involvement in a housing problem which they believed was better addressed by private entities. Once constructed, few units were sold (one source said none were sold, another said two units were sold in the second half of 1972.) Either way, most were available for rent by early 1974.


Additionally, quality control issues arose, and flaws were identified in the construction of the units. One-year warranties were not being honored, as the construction companies argued that the units they had constructed had been “experimental” and built to the specifications provided by HUD. The lack of sales and the construction problems led to a shutdown of Operation Breakthrough, and no further federal funding was used on the project locations. HUD divested itself of the Operation Breakthrough properties, which were increasingly being called an “ill-fated” experiment, and the Indianapolis property was sold to a developer from Portland, Oregon at a discount ($6 million sale price on a $11 million cost). Despite aggressive advertising campaigns by the new owner, the Indianapolis News reported in a March 29, 1974, review of the project, that there were no sales. As of that date, 192 of the almost 300 units were rented month to month to IUPUI students under an exclusive deal which provided reduced rent for the students and which called for the property to be deeded to the university in 40 years (this never happened).


In December 1972, following news that the property would be sold, Richard Lugar stated that Operation Breakthrough was an experimental housing project which needed to be tried, and that he regretted the loss of money from the project’s failure. None of the companies involved n the construction moved to Indianapolis, and tax revenue was much less than what had been expected. The property was renamed Park Lafayette and has gone through a variety of owners since the 1970’s.


Today, the Operation Breakthrough neighborhood is still in place, and is a mixture of single family homes, condominiums, and apartment housing. The variety of construction designs and materials used in the neighborhood is a reminder of the forward-thinking nature of the project, and of the experimental construction styles used.


Operation Breakthrough was a detailed project, and much more could be written about its goals and ultimate decline. In addition to newspaper sources, the Richard G. Luger Mayoral Archives at University of Indianapolis provide a wealth of information, with over 700 items relating to Breakthrough; way too many to address here. However, this link is a Breakthrough Q & A document contained in the archive, for those seeking additional information.


The Poor Farm Cemetery


This aspect of post-poor farm property is, in my mind, the most surprising, primarily because of the lack of information about this site, and the lack of recognition for the individuals who were buried at this cemetery. The first poor farm post mentioned the cemetery, also sometimes called the Marion County potter's field, for the poor farm, which had been established at the northwest corner of Tibbs and 21st Streets. The cemetery rarely appears on maps, although its existence was certainly known, if not its exact boundaries. The Find A Graves website includes a page for the "Marion County Potters Field," and includes a listing of individuals buried at the cemetery, derived from newspaper reports and death certificates.


As the former poor farm property headed towards being developed for Operation Breakthrough, it was decided that a 10-acre parcel directly northwest of the intersection of Tibbs and 21st would be used as a park. It seems that this decision was partially because of uncertainty of the location of the poor farm cemetery and limiting the development of that area to a park use, would be the best way to limit disturbing the graves. An Indianapolis News article from December 22, 1970 reported that William Spencer, head of the Indianapolis Parks, told the News that he was aware of the cemetery, and noted that Parks planned to avoid the location, and that it would not be an "active part of the park ground."


The next day, the city park board had voted to condemn the land, which was still owned by the county for the construction of the park. The News noted that the park was to be built “despite the mystery surrounding the exact location” of the cemetery on the site. One Park board member abstained due to a “lack of sufficient knowledge” of the location of the cemetery. Spencer was quoted in the News as stating “I wouldn’t suggest we’d do anything to disturb the sanctity of the dead,” while also admitting the parks department didn’t know the actual boundaries of the cemetery. According to the Indianapolis Star, the city obtained permission from a Marion County Superior Court Judge in April of 1971 to disinter and remove the remains in the cemetery. According to assistant city attorney Gary Landau, the location for the new park had been used "indiscriminately as a burial ground," which led to the request to disinter.


The location seems to have been such a problem because of the lack of formality with its creation and use. City and county directories also do not list the cemetery itself among the cemetery listings, although many do identify the location of the poor farm. I've located two maps which show the cemetery on the poor farm grounds (I imagine there are others, but this was all I could find which were digitized). The 1866 Warner map ( below left) and the 1876 Andreas map, both of Marion County show the cemetery occupying the ground directly to the northwest of the intersection of present day Tibbs and 21st Street. The Andreas map indicates the cemetery as merely a cross.

The May 18 poor farm post notes that the cemetery was in operation as early as 1842, and likely earlier than that, since the General Assembly passed a resolution in that year, regarding the fencing of the "present graveyard for the poor farm," suggesting the cemetery was already in place. The December 22, 1970 News article notes the cemetery dated back 130 years. Some aerial photos of the area show a small rectangular patch on the northwest corner of Tibbs and 21st Street, which could be the cemetery area. An example of this can be seen the Operation Breakthrough image above.


Strangely, the poor farm cemetery seems to have been partially retired not long after the Andreas map, above, was created. The Indianapolis Journal reported on July 26, 1882, about the city and county's efforts to find a new "common burying ground," due to overcrowding at the old Greenlawn Cemetery where previously buried remains were being unearthed to make room for new burials (Greenlawn was closed to new burials in 1890). According to the 1882 Journal article, the previous General Assembly eliminated the poor farm cemetery by requiring that any remains of residents of the poor farm not claimed by family or friends, would instead be given to the local medical schools for educational use. The Journal noted that the law was so successful, that the Marion County poor farm cemetery had become "almost wholly abandoned." But the city was now looking for a public pauper cemetery, as opposed to the poor farm cemetery which had just served the poor farm itself. One recommendation was that the new common burying ground would be at the poor farm, and maintained by the residents of the farm.


It is not clear when burials recommenced at the poor farm, whether for residents or for the general public, and the polices and practices for burials seems to have been in a regular state of flux. A News report in September of 1892 noted that the Marion County Commissioners had ordered that burial in the poor farm graveyard would be placed under the supervision of the farm's superintendent, and that graves were to be numbered, and the superintendent must authorize all burials. A few years later in 1896, a controversy arose when a the remains of a Indianapolis resident were buried at the poor farm cemetery by the employees of a man who the county had contracted with were found missing from the grave which was described as being only a few inches below grade.

Indianapolis People #indyturns200
Indianapolis The People, December 17, 1871

In 1902, the Indianapolis Sun reported that it was believed that the majority of the bodies buried at the poor farm cemetery had been stolen, a longstanding problem in Marion County (and elsewhere) where graves were robbed of their remains and sold to local medical colleges. The poor farm cemetery was particularly susceptible to this, as record keeping was at best minimal, and the burials were not always done properly. In one instance in 1871, The People, a weekly newspaper published in Indianapolis in the 1870's and 1880's, reported on a child's remains which had been taken from the poor farm cemetery. The disappearance was only discovered when relatives from out of town came to exhume the remains for reburial in a family plot out of town. The People pleaded that "[t]he graves of the poor should be held just as sacred as those of the rich and such measures should be taken that neither Potter's Field nor Crown Hill should be invaded by body snatchers."


In another instance, a recent burial was found to have been only 18 inches below ground. Unfortunately, the poor farm cemetery was the victim of constant grave robbing, a regular occurrence in cemeteries around Indianapolis, including at the original Greenlawn Cemetery. In 1878, the Indianapolis News reported that the poor farm cemetery was "devastated" by the practice, and that rumor said there were less than half a dozen remains still interred there.


Burials continued to be reported at the property throughout the early 1900's and into the 1920's, although it appears the cemetery was being used for burials of others beyond just the residents of the poor farm. In 1917, the News reported that an unidentified man found drowned in the canal had been buried at the cemetery, only to be later exhumed and identified by family members, who had him reburied at Crown Hill. Interviews with local residents that appeared in the December 1970 Indianapolis News reported recollections that burials were continuing as late as 1935 and that the only grave markers in recent memory had been wooden tablets, which had long since rotted away or been removed in the 1940's. A entry on the Find a Grave website indicates a burial in 1941, and another entry on the Genealogical Society of Marion County indicates a burial in 1957. However, based on a review of the death certificates for these cases, I do not think these burials were at the poor farm cemetery.

The question about the location of the cemetery as it related to the Operation Breakthrough was finally determined when the city began doing street and sewer work on 21st street, only a few hundred feet west of Tibbs in the summer of 1971. The first report of human remains came on June 21, 1971 when a trench was being dug for laying of a drain line (photo to the left, Indianapolis News). County Commissioner William G. Schneider arrived on the scene and told Indianapolis Star reporter Michael Horrell that he saw “bones and parts of several skulls which appeared to be human,” within the trench being dug. The parks department said they had contracted with the Usher Funeral home to to gather the remans, and handle the reinternment. Marion County officials filed a lawsuit to halt the construction, and obtained a temporary restraining order. However, this was overturned in late July 1971. As excavations continued, human remains, and pieces of cheap, rotting wooden coffins were revealed. According to the Indianapolis News on September 15, 1971, the remains were centered at the intersection of Alton and 21st Street. Local residents criticized how the city was dealing with the remains. Residents recounted how the city had said the graves would not be disturbed and and that the cemetery was to be landscaped as part of the park project. Although as noted above, no one was sure the exact location of the graves, it does not appear any investigation or preliminary archeological review of the site had been done prior to the work being commenced.

Indianapolis News poor farm cemetery #indyturns200
Image showing pieces of coffin and bones found at site.

As a result, remains were still being turned over, and residents reported that curious kids were raiding the worksite and carrying off “human skulls, leg bones, ribs, hip bones and whatever kind of bones they could find,” reported Peter Donna (also referred to in some sources as Peter Dana), a resident who lived near the area. Donna also told the News “[t]hat’s a pauper cemetery, but I’ll tell you, if some of the people buried there were relatives of the politicians who are behind the [Breakthrough] project, it would be handled differently.” The News reported that workers at the site had not been able to get all the remains for re-internment.” What happened to the remains is not clear. I contacted Usher Funeral Home, which is still in operation at 2313 West Washington Street, to find out if they had any records from that time period and of any work they did at the cemetery. I received a response that no one presently working at Usher had been there in the early 1970's but the person who responded was going to review their records to determine whether they ended up being involved in the reinternments. As of the date this post was published, I had not received an update.


Today, the site of the cemetery is still a park, named in 2009 after James Foster Gaines, an IMPD officer known for mentoring youth. That same year, some of the original tennis and basketball courts installed in the 1970's were replaced with newer facilities. I found no mention of any human remains found during this construction (although the construction was more surface oriented.) I visited the site of the cemetery on Sunday, June 6. I was not expecting to find anything related to the cemetery, although I wondered if there would be any sort of historical marker. None was found. I did speak to a local resident named David, who had lived in the area for quite some time. He provided background about the park, and we discussed the current status of the Operation Breakthrough structures, but he did not know about the former cemetery site. Below are a few photos from the site. The intersection of Alton and 21st Streets, mentioned in the News article (above) as where remains were found during construction, is in the upper right of the first image.

Poor farm cemetery site
View of the cemetery site looking west from Tibbs and 21st. Alton Street is on the left.

The state’s SHAARD (State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database) database includes a report on the cemetery, although the location on their GIS mapping system is approximate, and the report has little information aside from noting that the markers for the cemetery were damaged due to custodial care and construction. Genealogical Society of Marion County also references the SHAARD report, and has little information about the cemetery, except a note suggesting that "perhaps it is now part of Tibbs & 21st St Park." As discussed above, this is correct, although the passage of time, and advancing development, has ensured that site continues in obscurity.


Note: This post will be updated should additional information be located, especially in regard to the poor farm cemetery. I have a few outstanding inquiries which could lead to new lines of research, and possibly more clarity about this topic.



Sources


IMS Solar Power Facility Opens, https://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/events/indy500/news-multimedia/news/2014/07/01/ims-solar-power-facility-opens


History of Harbor Light Center, https://webmanager.salvationarmy.org/harborlightindiana/our-history


Indianapolis News: June 3, 1878, September 14, 1892, November 5, 1896, December 6, 1917, April 24, 1970, December 22, 1970, December 23, 1970, June 15, 1971, June 21, 1971, September 15, 1971, December 9, 1972, December 20, 1972, March 29, 1974, December 13, 1976

Indianapolis Star: April 24, 1970


Indianapolis Star: May 11, 1969, November 23, 1969, January 11, 1970, December 17, 1970, June 22, 1971, June 29, 1971, July 9, 1971, July 24, 1971, December 19 1972, June 13, 2009


Indianapolis Sun: April 26, 1894, September 30, 1902


Indianapolis The People: December 17, 1871, March 6, 1880


Operation Breakthrough Site (image), Indiana Historical Society, City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development, Indiana Historical Society


The Richard G. Lugar Collection, Digital Mayoral Archives, University of Indianapolis


Four Producers Start Housing Units for Operation Breakthrough Sites, HUDNews, April 26, 1971, https://uindy.historyit.com/item.php?id=353023


Polk's Indianapolis City Directory, 1932, p. 1797, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/ICD/id/54087/rec/1


Board of Parks and Recreation Meeting minutes, 1970, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections


Board of Parks and Recreation Meeting minutes, 1971, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections






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