Within the small LA suburb of Downey sits what appears to be a ghost town. A mixture of overgrown, charred, and boarded up buildings sit behind chainlink fences topped with barbed wire, and gates locked with multiple padlocks. What is this ghostly place? It is what remains of the Los Angeles County Poor Farm.
For those unfamiliar with the term “poor farm” they were large complexes funded and run by counties or towns to house the poor and destitute, which were often the elderly and disabled. These places were also working farms, complete with fields, orchards, and livestock, which were tended to by the more able-bodied residents, the farm aspect supplied the residents with food, and the excess was sold for profit. Poor farms began to disappear with the arrival of the Social Security in 1935 and were a thing of the past by the mid-20th century.
What was originally known as the Los Angeles County Poor Farm started in 1887, when the LA County Board of Supervisors decided to build a place for the area’s homeless and purchased 124.4 acres of farmland near Downey, since that time Downey has grown to encompass the area of the poor farm. Buildings were constructed to house the “inmates” as they were called, and other buildings served as offices and common areas. Trees and flowers were planted in between to create a peaceful setting for those who found themselves there. The first inmates arrived the following year and were looked after by Dr. Edwin L. Burdick, the superintendent, who was a doctor with a farming background.
Just a few years later the farm was producing fruit, vegetables, alfalfa, sugar beets and had a collection of livestock, including cows, pigs, and chickens, which provided the residents with food and what wasn’t consumed was sold, often making a surprising profit. During my visit I was shocked to discover a lemon tree that was growing fruit still!
Over the decades, the farm grew, and by 1910, it was around 400 acres. The reasons why people arrived at the poor farm also grew, and included people with mental illness and alcoholism. However, the relatively peaceful setting did not mean all of the residents were at peace, as there were a number of suicides, and eventually there was an investigation on the treatment of the residents.
A new superintendent arrived in 1915, William Ruddy Harriman, who was just 26 when he took over. Harriman sought a lot of change, beginning with the name of the poor farm, renaming it “Hondo” and ditching the term “inmates” opting instead for “patients.”
By 1929 the number of patients neared 2,000 and continued to climb with the arrival of the Great Depression. The Depression hit Hondo hard; funding virtually evaporated as the number of patients increased, and a tent city had to be built.
Another rename arrived in 1932, when the location chose to focus more on rehabilitation and medicine, it was dubbed “Ranchos Los Amigos.” By 1934 Rancho sprawled across 540 acres, and had over 2,700 patients. But with the implementation of the Social Security Act and the arrival of World War II, many were able to leave Rancho, moving to nursing homes, and the more able bodied found work helping the war effort. Also during WWII, part of Rancho became an Army base.
At the end of the war, Rancho added a polio ward and by the 1950s it was a model hospital, and the farm aspect was abandoned. In 1952 Harriman retired, passing away the following year. The aging former poor farm turned hospital had run its course by the 1980s, and it was abandoned, moving across the street to a new facility.
The former superintendent’s home was used as the exterior for Mud Creek Shady Rest Home in the 2002 horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep, starring one of my favorite actors, Bruce Campbell as Elvis. Sadly, in 2017 a fire severely damaged the building. The fire was just one of several. The first occurred in January, then, two simultaneous fires, including the one that took out the Mud Creek Shady Rest Home location, occurred in June, the structure, kept behind two sets of fences is still recognizable though.
Here is a screenshot from Google Streetview, when Google drove by in 2012, when the road was still open, and the building still uncharred.
A gruesome discovery was made in 2006 when the military returned to the grounds. Marines, using the area for a training exercise, stumbled upon a freezer full of mummified body parts, which turned out to be amputated medical specimens, not the result of a murderer hacking apart bodies on the abandoned grounds.
In 2013 a real estate broker wanted to re-establish the poor farm as a way to solve LA’s growing homeless crisis. His ideas went nowhere. During the same time there were talks for the area being redeveloped for a county office building. The area continues to sit, unused, with perhaps the exception of the Administration Building, a Spanish Revival style structure built in 1926. The building had several cars surrounding it during the time of my visit and has not fallen victim to lack of care, however it, like all of the other buildings is behind chainlink and barbed wire.
It should be noted, that I abided by the plethora of “No Trespassing” signs that were on the fences and buildings. At no point in time did I climb through or over the fences and gates. All photos were taken through or over fences and gates. Sadly, some of the most interesting buildings were beyond my reach. Since the complex is surrounded by active businesses there was nearly always someone with a short distance of me. I assume one of these persons suspected me of attempting to enter the property as near the end of my time taking photos a police car arrived within the gated area, and spied me. The officer waited to leave until they saw me depart in my car. Other “urban explorers” have also noted being shoo’ed away by security and police. Just a few years ago the area was much more accessible and another blogger explored the grounds, which you can check out here. In 2015 photographer Scott Reyes entered some of the buildings, and captured some very haunting images that you can view here.
Peek through the fences of the old LA County Poor Farm at 13001 Dahlia Avenue in Downey, at your own risk. I do not encourage or support trespassing.