Remembering: The peonage law brings big changes to state hospital farm
Today, I am continuing to look back over 25 years ago, when the Allentown State Hospital operated an 800-acre farm in East Allen Township. Mr. John McDevitt, the former assistant manager, is sharing information from an article he wrote years ago.
The farm started in 1919 to supply food and milk to a number of state institutions. It also provided therapy for a number of patients. But slowly, change brought an end to the farm operation — beginning with the Institutional Peonage Abolishment Act.
Mr. McDevitt recalls, “In 1974, the state of Pennsylvania enacted the peonage law. This spelled the end of patient labor on the farm as well as places within the hospital. This also made it increasingly difficult for the always profitable farm to break even. Soon after this, all the patients were moved back to Allentown; however, the farm managed to survive for a number of years.”
This writer visited the farm on a number of occasions and was very impressed by the positive attitude the farm and animals created for the patients. They helped feed the hogs, steers and dairy cattle. Some picked vegetables and fruit. Today, you often hear the word “ownership” used in different situations. Well, you could actually see how the male patients integrated themselves into a farm community.
I continue to say our society has been overregulated with masses of state and federal legislation, many laws having been counterproductive. The peonage act was one of them. Tears flowed down the faces of a number of state farm patients when they were transferred from open space to the confines of the Allentown State Hospital.
In 1980, the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare decided to terminate all farming operations, statewide. In order to facilitate the orderly disposal of the farms, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture stepped in and operated the facility for an extra year. In the spring of 1981, the entire dairy herd was auctioned off on the site.
The auction was held on a brisk, clear March day. The sale saw 106 cows, 55 registered cows, 33 registered yearlings and calves sold. Seventeen cows produced 18,000 to 20,000 pounds of milk, five produced 20,000 to 22,000 pounds and three produced 22,000 pounds. The great herd and dairy were gone forever.
When the farm closed, many former employees found jobs at the hospital. Mr. McDevitt used his years of firefighter training and experiences to become safety director at the hospital from 1981 to 2000.
More recollections of Mr. John McDevitt will be shared in my next column.