JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — It was the final operating “poor farm” in Tennessee when its last residents moved about 15 years ago. Now, Washington County commissioners are trying to determine whether there’s a viable future for the 47-acre County Farm off of Couch Road, or whether selling the mix of pasture and woodland will best serve county taxpayers and residents.

“We’ve looked at that property a number of times and sort of debated about what would be the best thing we can do,” County Commissioner Jodi Jones said Thursday ahead of a County Owned Property Committee meeting to discuss the farm’s future.

“We have three options. We can auction it and let somebody else decide what to do with it, we can donate it or we can keep it as a county-owned property and find a use for it that serves the county.”

The farm includes a large, dormitory-style building that once housed residents. (Photo: WJHL)

Still overseen by Mike Collins, whose parents were the last official “caretakers” when poor, disabled and other residents lived there, the farm is now the subject of a draft “Request for Proposals” (RFP) from the commission. The farm includes a large dormitory-style building that once housed dozens of residents.

Self-funded proposals would require a lease of no less than five years and a “realistic and obtainable” idea as the county seeks “the highest and best use for this county asset,” the RFP states. Successful proposals would also need to “fit well with the surrounding neighborhood(s).”

The County Owned Property Committee passed the draft RFP Thursday with a slight revision. It has a Jan. 31 deadline for proposals.

Any user also would have to protect the cemetery there, where potentially hundreds of residents who died at the farm were buried in unmarked graves.

Jones, who chairs the committee, would like to see something work out that keeps the farm in the county’s hands. So would Anne Mason, a local historian and Executive Director of the Heritage Alliance.

“For a while, every county in Tennessee had a county-owned farm,” Mason said. That practice began when Anderson County approached the state legislature for funds to build an “almshouse” for its poor citizens.

“Their function was to be a place like a refuge, a sanctuary for people who are having economic struggles, who couldn’t provide for themselves economically,” Mason said.

“People with various disabilities or illnesses, who didn’t have anyone to take care of them or willing to take care of them would would go there. And the idea was that they were working farms so they would be self-sustaining.”

Washington County’s first county farm was in “Greenfield,” further from Jonesborough. The current location was established in the 1890s, Mason said.

By the 1960s and ’70s, most counties had closed their farms as better social welfare programs started to be developed. But Washington County’s “rest home” outlasted all the others. Some memories from those last years are included in an oral history project conducted by former ETSU professor Tess Lloyd.

“The last people who had connections to the place shared stories about some people who lived there and were like, ‘well, I don’t have anybody else to take care of me but I have the Collinses, and they take care of me, they’re my family,'” Mason said.

Several barns and outbuildings show the potential for the farm to be viable again. (Photo: WJHL)

Those kinds of facts resonate with Mason.

“There were chores, it was a working farm but it also had like a sense of family. They wanted to be sure those people were well cared for.”

Jones said she’d like to see the property put to a similar positive use.

“What do citizens or entrepreneurs or people in our region think they might could do with … beautiful farmland in a way that would serve the citizens of the county?”

But Jones said she realizes the county needs to consider every angle.

“Commissioners have to balance the financial health of the county and what is the best thing fiscally that serves all the people in the county, not necessarily just the people that live or work around the county farm area.

“On balance, I think the county commission really wants to look at, ‘when is it time for us to invest in the health and well-being of people in our county.’ We know that green space, we know that outdoor recreation space is a way to do that.”

Jones said commissioners have been hearing loud and clear from a number of citizens that they want green spaces and the county’s rural character preserved as population growth accelerates.

“That is something that I think we’re really going to have to grapple with going forward.”