Ground penetrating radar helps define unmarked Helena cemetery

poor farm cemetery
Posted at 4:16 PM, Oct 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-21 20:44:49-04

HELENA — On North Benton Avenue, in the middle of a Helena subdivision, sits an old graveyard. There are no signs, no plaques, no markers, just a square of grass bordered by sidewalk that is the final resting place of as many as 400 people.

It is the site of the old poor farm cemetery. Lewis and Clark County opened the poor farm in the late 1800s. It housed the elderly who had no one to care for them, people who were disabled and unable to work, and orphaned or abandoned children.

“This is a relic of what our country was like when there was no safety net for anybody,” Helena and Lewis and Clark County historic preservation officer Pam Attardo said.

Poor farms started on the east coast and spread west.

“People worked, did various jobs around the poor farm, took care of livestock, or grew vegetables,” Attardo said. “The idea is that they would be self-sufficient. Of course, that didn’t work out because in most of the places where these were located, you could not grow food year round.”

When people at the poor farm died, they were buried in the cemetery on what is now North Benton Avenue.

Charleen Spalding did extensive research into the poor farm, and she found a plot plan for the cemetery and made a list of people who could be buried there. But, since there are no gravesite markers, it’s uncertain how accurate the plot plan is.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, the Montana Department of Transportation brought ground penetrating radar to scan the cemetery site.

“That’s what we’re doing today, just trying to confirm with the 3-D grid where the extents (of the gravesites) start and stop, and where the borders of this are,” MDT geotechnical engineer Alex Haag said.

MDT acquired the $36,000 piece of equipment about a year ago.

To put it very simply, the ground penetrating radar uses an electromagnetic signals to produce an image that indicates ground disturbances, and detecting gravesites is not what MDT usually uses it for.

“We hope to use it to detect voids behind retaining walls, we use it to find utilities when we’re drilling,” MDT geotechnical engineer Nick Jaynes said. “We haven’t really been able to use it a whole lot yet.”

Scanning the old poor farm cemetery was an important training exercise. The ground penetrating radar found a pattern indicative of graves.

“The people who are buried here are people who had no family, they had no money,” Attardo said. The county paid for them to have a pine box and be buried six feet.”

While ground penetrating radar does not answer exactly how many and who is buried at the poor farm cemetery, it does help clarify the boundaries of the final resting place for hundreds of Helenans.