El Paso County’s Poor Farm

Driving home from church a few Sundays ago, Chantilly and I saw a historical marker on North Loop. We’ve been seeing the sign for months and wondered what it led to. That day, we were determined to stop and see just what it was.

The historical marker reads:

El Paso County’s second poor farm, known as the El Paso Poor Farm, was established here in 1915. John O’Shea, a wealthy farmer and businessman whose farm was nearby, assumed operation of the farm. His wife, Agnes O’Shea, was in charge of the residents. John O’Shea died in 1929, and the couple’s daughter, Helen O’Shea Keleher, came from her home in San Antonio to operate the farm with her mother. The farm was scheduled to be closed in 1929, but, with the troubled times of the Depression era, its population grew. Renamed “Rio Vista Farm,” the poor farm hosted a variety of public welfare programs beginning in the 1930s. It operated under the Texas Transient Bureau and later the Federal Works Progress Administration. A temporary base for a Civilian Conservation Corps unit in 1936, the farm continued to shelter hundreds of homeless and destitute adults and children. From 1951 to 1964, the farm was used as a reception and processing centre for the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican labourers to work in the lower valley of El Paso and other agricultural areas in the U.S. New federal welfare programs and state law reduced the population of the poor farm to four, and it was closed in 1964. Unlike other Texas county poor farms, Rio Vista followed a familial rather than institutional model, accepting neglected and abandoned children in addition to the adult indigent population. In later life, Helen O’Shea Keleher cited the fifty years she spent with the more than four thousand orphans and neglected children of the Rio Vista Poor Farm as her proudest accomplishment. (2000)

This is from the El Paso Poor Farm, also known as Rio Vista Farm, located at 800 Rio Vista Road in Socorro, Texas.

When visiting the Farm, you will find a collection of old adobe buildings surrounding a large square in the centre. These buildings have housed poor children who could not be supported by their families to Braceros (Mexican labourers admitted to the US for seasonal agricultural work) who left their homes in Mexico and came to the United States.

The O’Shea family started the Farm. During the Great Depression, many individuals and private companies began to lend a hand to those in need. In Texas, it was hard for anyone to admit they needed help. Pride often got in the way. Yet, something needed to be done, and the O’Shea family decided to give a place to anyone who needed somewhere to stay.

Throughout the Great Depression, the Farm’s population continued to grow. This growth led to the Farm hosting different welfare programs. As time when on, the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR’s New Deal, set up shop at the farm to help create jobs for those who lost everything during the depression.

When the United States entered World War II, America heeded the call to serve their country in the Military, or in working to support the Military. This, of course, led to a shortage of labour. In 1942 Congress enacted the Emergency Labor Program. This program allowed people from Mexico to come to the United States and fill vacant jobs – again, mostly within the agriculture field. Rio Vista Farm became their temporary home.

Today, the buildings of the Rio Vista Farm stand in silent testament to all those who walked through their doors. For many, it was a place of hope, a place where they could get back on their feet. For the Braceros, it was a double-edged sword – for some, it was a way to feed their families. For others, it was a degrading experience that saw them being mistreated, fumigated with DDT, and worse.

If you have a chance, take a moment to drive by. Walk through the buildings. Stand inside of one while you imagine the hopes and disappointments of those who walked through those doors so many years ago.


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Categories: El Paso County, History, Socorro

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