New life at the Poor Farm

The Waupaca County Poor Farm has been transformed into an art exhibition space and a residence for artists. It is open on the weekend during the warm months and it closes in the winter. James Card Photo

An ongoing art experiment in Waupaca County

By James Card

The Waupaca County Poor Farm was built in 1876 and used to be a place where people in need would go for room and board.

In return, the people who stayed there were expected to work on the farm. If they didn’t work or caused problems, a stay in the basement jail might change their mind.

The Waupaca County Poor Farm on County Trunk BB, not far from Bear Lake, was shuttered after the Social Security system was put into practice in the late 1930s.

The building was privately owned over the years and in 2008, the husband and wife art duo of Brad Killam and Michelle Grabner purchased the building to use it as a not-for-profit art experiment and an artist residence retreat.

They live in Milwaukee and commute to Chicago for work. Killam is an art teacher at the College of DuPage and Grabner teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the end of the week, they drive up to Waupaca County.

This project is entirely funded by both of their salaries. Grabner admits that it’s tight. They have three children in college. They saved for years to put on a new roof and they removed 10 dumpsters worth of junk and rubbish.

The upstairs bedrooms of the Poor Farm building are used as individual gallery spaces showcasing artwork. James Card Photo

Grabner grew up in Appleton and her grandparents had a cottage on the Little Wolf River. She loved visiting there as a kid, she hated it as a teenager “and now I’ve found my way back,” she said.

The Poor Farm building is composed of the first floor where exhibitions are featured, along with an upstairs area of ​​separate empty bedrooms that have their own mini individual exhibits.

Artist John Schabel drew this as a child when President John F. Kennedy was killed. He saved the illustration and it was enlarged to 48 inches by 125 inches for display at the Poor Farm. James Card Photo

There is a rear wing of the building that is a dormitory for artists and the fieldstone basement is a dungeon-like maze and the solid steel bars of the jail cell are still intact and inescapable.

The Poor Farm also doubles as an artist residence. Approximately 25-50 artists stay there over a year for a week or two. It is an austere stay: a kitchen, bathroom, simple accommodations and a quiet place to work their craft. The building is closed down as the cold weather nears.

They removed the old heating system and now all that is left is hot water. They have plans to add solar and geothermal heating in the future once they are able to afford it.

Grabner says they occasionally get a grant or two for exhibitions but nonprofits tend not to be awarded to things like a new furnace or plumbing.

The Poor Farm has an upstairs and downstairs art exhibition area. The interior is clean but has been left in its weathered original shape. James Card Photo

ranking themes

The exhibition theme changes every year and it is not the kind of art one would find locally.

“The artwork that you see in here is an international art conversation. So if I go to Italy or Berlin or Los Angeles or New York, this is the kind of work you would see in the professional art world,” said Grabner.

They also showcase regionally themed artwork. In the past they exhibited duck decoys and musky lures.

“On occasion we will understand the regional vernacular. That’s Wisconsin art practices that we bring into the fold as well,” she said.

The theme of this year’s exhibit is year’s based on Michael Lesy’s 1973 book, “Wisconsin Death Trip.” He used old black and white fin de siècle photos from Charles Van Schaick, the town photographer in Black River Falls. Lesy then juxtaposed these images with newspaper clippings with bizarre accounts of rural madness and crisis. The book is considered a cult classic.

The Waupaca County Poor Farm has a jail cell in the basement. When it was in operation, residents that caused problems would be locked up. The Poor Farm closed down around the time Social Security was established. James Card Photo

The front exhibition room showcases these images. There are eerie portraits and images of a train wreck, primitive taxidermy, flooded towns, barber shops, a horse-drawn hear and dead babies dressed up and positioned in coffins.

The news clippings from that time period are equally disturbing: stories of suicides, tramps, diphtheria, poisonings, chronic arson, and bankruptcies. In one entry a man kills himself by placing his head atop dynamite and touching off the fuse.

Behind the front exhibition room, the area darkens as a theater space and the backroom is subdivided into three viewing areas for feature films that play into the Wisconsin Death Trip theme. There are benches and multiple sets of wireless headsets attuned to the film audio.

One film is titled, “Everybody Dies,” and it resembles a low-value production 1970s game show hosted by a woman playing the grim reaper. If the children contestants give the wrong answer, they are pushed into the door of death.

beer and art

During a conversation, Grabner paused at a passing tractor. “That’s Leon. Leon is great. That’s the farmer across the road,” she said.

Some of the local farmers like to stop by and hang out with the art set while others turn their noses at the out-of-towners. One neighbor drove up in a UTV loaded with a shotgun and a Husqvarna chainsaw. I have stopped in for beer.

The Poor Farm also has their own pilsner. It’s called Poor Farm Pils. It comes in a can and it is brewed by Company Brewing out of Milwaukee. This was the brainchild of artist John Riepenhoff. He invented the Beer Endowment series where a portion of beer sales support artist-run organizations. Riepenhoff has launched other beers for other groups but the Poor Farm brew is the oldest bestselling beer in the series.

“Beer is an art form and art is a product of civilization,” said Riepenhoff.

The Poor Farm art exhibit is open to the public on weekends. No exact hours are posted. It will close when the weather gets cold. More information can be found at

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