Reaping What You Sow

by J. William (Bill) Goold*

For nearly a century after its opening in 1871, the big prison in the small Central Illinois town of Pontiac operated a farm. It helped supply food for inmates and staff. Crop surpluses also generated significant outside revenue in some years, offsetting appropriated funds from the state legislature. Institutional records show that prison authorities and reformers alike praised the farm for providing opportunities for rehabilitation. The farm survived until the beginning of the 1970’s, a decade that saw increased prison violence.

Pontiac prison farm

The Illinois State Reform School Period: 1869 – 1891

In 1869, Pontiac was selected as the site for the establishment of the State Reform School, which had been authorized by the Illinois General Assembly in March 1867. At the same time, 276 acres of surrounding prairie land were purchased by the state for its development. Clearly, learning the ways and means of farming was to be a principal daily activity from the outset.

Operation of what was to be an institution for the rehabilitation of delinquent boys from 10-16 years of age began in 1871. In the beginning, The Pontiac reform school accepted boys from throughout the state except for Cook County – where Chicago is located – which had its own youth detention system. But that system changed in 1872 when the Chicago Reform School was closed and boys convicted of criminal offenses were thereafter sent to Pontiac.

According to annual reports of the Board of Trustees of the State Reform School, there were a total of 68 boys there as of 1872, many of who were employed on the fledgling farm planting and tending to corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. By 1874, the population had risen to 196 boys. Using appropriated funds, cattle were purchased for the first time and enclosed on 20 acres of pasture adjoining the Reform School. By 1878, the farm was almost completely tiled, providing much needed drainage throughout the compound. During this period, an artesian well was also drilled to the depth of 1,406 feet and coupled with a 16-foot windmill. But the water was unfit for human consumption because of high concentrations of salt and associated potassium chloride.

The Illinois State Reformatory Period: 1891 – 1933

Throughout its first twenty years of existence, the population at the Pontiac prison steadily increased. In 1891 Governor Joseph W. Fifer and the Illinois General Assembly undertook a sweeping reorganization of the entire institution and its physical footprint. The enabling legislation changed the age of commitment to 21, bringing even more prisoners on site. The institution was also renamed the Illinois State Reformatory, reflecting the embrace of a different approach to prisoner rehabilitation which emphasized indeterminate sentencing linked to a grading and marking system which presumably offered greater hope for parole.

Concurrently, higher priority was given to better targeting of schooling and training for industrial occupations (including farming, gardening, and saddle-making) for ‘future usefulness and self-support.’ Together, state policymakers and prison administrators assumed that farming, the leading industry in Illinois, was one of the best occupations for young men and one that ‘would provide a fair wage for work always in demand.’

The rapidly growing prisoner population dictated infrastructure improvements and increased food production (especially vegetables). As of 1892, the prison farm employed 10 inmates, whose duties included tending to a 20-acre garden. In 1894, a greenhouse was built. A barn was added two years later.

Between 1898 and 1900, 140 acres adjoining the prison farm were leased to employ more prisoners. A shed for cattle and a sizeable corncrib were constructed. An orchard of one thousand apple, plum, cherry, peach and pear trees plus one thousand grapevines were planted and fenced.

By year 1900, the prison population had soared to nearly 1,300. Farm production focused on crops that required the least amount of machinery, thereby limiting the expense in the state budget. Replacement hog sheds were built next to the cattle yard, only to experience an outbreak of hog cholera that necessitated the killing of all breeding hogs and most of their young.

Prison overcrowding prompted the Reformatory’s managers and warden to pursue expansion of farm operations in size and scope between 1904 and 1906. The Board of Managers decried living conditions inside the prison and expounded upon the benefits of farming for the youths at the Reformatory. When testifying before the state legislature in Springfield, they claimed “there is nothing better than farm work for the mental, moral, and physical well-being of those of our wards whose tastes and inclinations run toward the soil, or, as is often the case, whose health is likely impaired by too much indoor confinement.”

The managers also stressed that ‘tubercular cases’ would benefit from exposure to sunlight and open air and that yields from additional farmland could be utilized within the prison, thus lessening the need to buy ever greater quantities of food from the outside. Accordingly, they requested state funds for the acquisition of at least 600 additional acres of farmland. One noteworthy capital improvement was construction of a root house for more vegetable storage.

Between 1910 and the end of 1912, three silos, a slaughterhouse, and a farm implement shed were added. Looking ahead, additional appropriations requests were submitted for the replacement of the wood barns with concrete block structures (to make the dairy operations more sanitary), for the construction of eight poultry houses, and for a farmhouse, so that someone would always be present to prevent harm to the livestock and crops. Overall, the farm had grown to 279 acres of state-owned farmland, of which 213 acres were cultivated. An additional 300 acres was under lease.

The adoption of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 banned the sale and drinking of alcohol in the United States and the onset of Prohibition helped set in motion profound changes throughout the prison. The national crime rate spiked during this period. Increasing numbers of older men convicted of serious offenses were sent to Pontiac throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, thus fueling the transformation of the facility from a reformatory into a full-blown state prison.

By 1925, the inmate population reached 1,310, the highest in the history of the institution up to that point. Thus, the seeds of worsening overcrowding and idleness among the incarcerated men had been sown. Regardless, as of 1928, right before the start of The Great Depression, the state still owned 272 acres and leased 400 acres for the prison farm. A combined total of approximately 600 acres remained under cultivation. Many of the products of the farm, gardens, dairy, and piggery were consumed within the prison and the surplus was sold on the market.

Inmates in yard at Pontiac State Reformatory

The Illinois State Penitentiary Era: 1933 – 1970

The proverbial handwriting was on the prison walls. According to the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Illinois Department of Public Welfare, the inmate population at Pontiac rose from 2,126 to 2,504 over the course of fiscal year 1931 as the country’s economic downtown took hold. By 1933, the General Assembly had to respond, so they consolidated the various penal units across Illinois into a single penitentiary system dubbed the Illinois State Penitentiary. The consolidation converted the former Illinois State Reformatory to the Pontiac Unit/Branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary. That official action irreversibly changed the type of prisoner received as well as their method of commitment.

Farming operations continued to expand, including the erection of a new corncrib with a granary capacity of 5,000 bushels. As of 1937, the prison farm operation consisted of five farms with a total of 1,560 acres under cultivation with 150 head of cattle, 700 hogs, 2,000 chickens, and 28 horses and mules. A new poured concrete foundation was placed under the farm implement shed, a hog dip was installed to help keep the hogs in cleaner condition, and a new iron gate was placed at the farm entrance on the east side of the compound. Very soon thereafter a farm dormitory (D Dorm) was completed to house 100 inmates assigned to the farm and other jobs outside the walls. The building was complete with sleeping quarters, bathing and heating facilities, and a kitchen and dining room for preparing and serving food for those assigned to the building

Farm-related improvements during 1940 included the construction of a refrigerating plant with rooms for sharp freezing, fruit preservation, tempering, meat cutting, and cold storage, plus an ice making plant and a cannery. More directly, improvements to the farm included the erection of 700 rods of new fence along the property lines and the hog and cattle lots. The dairy barn was re-roofed and screens were put on the doors and windows. Brick paving was laid in front of the dairy and calf barn. Two large hog houses were re-roofed. A large cooker was installed to cook garbage for hog feed, the slaughterhouse was repaired, and a farm implement shed was rebuilt. An additional large hog house and concrete cesspool were added and a concrete floor was laid in the milk house, complete with a truck and wagon scale.

Subsequent years brought decline as the country experienced World War II. There were fewer capital investments to the farm, as the inmate population was scaled back. But in 1953, several improvements were made at the farm, including the installation of a new incinerator at the south end of the yard and a central heating system in the slaughterhouse.

As late as 1967, the Illinois State Penitentiary still owned a substantial tract of farmland located southeast of the town of Pontiac, even though the prison is located on the southwest side of the town.

The Illinois Department of Corrections/Pontiac Correctional Center Era: 1970 – Present

In 1970, all the functions of the Illinois Youth Commission and The Department of Public Safety were combined into one new state agency – the Illinois Department of Corrections. Consequently, the Pontiac Branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary was renamed the Pontiac Correctional Center. By that time, virtually all operations of the farm had been phased out.

Curiously, it was determined, as part of the 2001 Illinois Historical Building Survey, that much of the previously mentioned tract of farmland southeast of town was still under the control of the correctional center and still being farmed. But no inmates were involved, so it was most likely leased to farmers in the area.

Were there connections between the demise of prison farming and the beginning of the most violent period in the entire history of the Pontiac Prison that was about to unfold?


* J. William (Bill) Goold was born in Fairbury, Illinois and raised on his family’s Centennial farm in Avoca Township, southeast of Pontiac. He spent many years in public service in Washington, DC including as the Executive Director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and in the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department and Solidarity Center. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and has two Masters Degrees. Currently Bill is retired, living in Bozeman, MT and involved in community activities, historical research, and his family farm in Illinois.