In 1888, a farm in Wheaton was transformed into DuPage County's Alms House for the indigent.
Residents who lived at the so-called "poor farm" worked in cornfields, grew vegetables and cared for a herd of dairy cows to support themselves and provide additional food to the county's jail inmates.
Since its opening, the Alms House has evolved into what's now the DuPage Convalescent Center. The nursing facility along County Farm Road provides long-term care and short-term rehabilitative services for hundreds of patients, many of whom are on Medicaid.
"We have a mission that still needs to be met in our community," said Jennifer Ulmer, the center's administrator. "We care for those who no longer have the physical ability or the financial ability to care for themselves."
Despite recurring talk of the county selling or privatizing the facility, the convalescent center has endured.
On Wednesday, residents and staff will begin a yearlong celebration of the center's 125th anniversary with a party. Other events will include a fashion show in May and a concert next August.
"For the folks who need to live there, DuPage County has done a really outstanding job to make sure their quality of life is as good as it could be," said David Anderson, who has volunteered for 40 years at the center. "That's a great commitment on the part of the county."
Shauna Berman, the center's interim assistant administrator, said Wednesday is significant because it's the anniversary of the day the county board voted to buy the land to open Alms House. The farm later became home to an average of 35 residents who were sent there because they were indigent.
"That was the way they dealt with their homeless back then," Berman said. "You didn't just let people walk the streets. You gave them a purpose by having them work for their room and board in a productive way."
Alms House later was dubbed "The County Farm," which is where County Farm Road got its name, Berman said. The farm became a health care facility during the 1930s.
After being named the DuPage County Convalescent Home, additions were built in 1947 and 1949. Farming on the property ceased in 1954, officials said.
By the time Ron Reinecke joined the staff in 1963, the facility had 160 beds. That number climbed to 508 by the 1990s.
"The county was growing," said Reinecke, who served as the center's administrator from 1968 to 2000. "They (county leaders) wanted to provide a quality place for elderly people and young disabled people."
That meant doing a string of expansions and major renovations, including a 100-bed addition that opened in 1993.
"By 1970, we had 100 percent support for almost everything we did," Reinecke recalled. "Sometimes when we presented an addition, there would be some questions and some problems with funding. But they always seemed to work them out."
The convalescent center currently has four interconnected buildings with a total of 360 beds.
"Everything about this facility -- this land -- has done nothing but change," Berman said. "But the concept has stayed the same. It's still to help people who need help."
The quality of privately operated nursing homes has "improved tremendously" since the 1960s and 1970s, Reinecke said. Meanwhile, counties aren't required to operate a convalescent center, and DuPage spends about $2.4 million a year subsidizing its facility.
That has resulted in politicians through the years proposing that the center be sold or turned over to a private management company.
"You always get a faction, maybe four or five members of the board, who suggest closing it so the county could have the money for other things," Reinecke said. "But it never got the majority."
Reinecke said it would be ill-advised to privatize the center because private facilities don't admit a large number of Medicaid patients. About 75 percent of the convalescent center's patients have their medical bills paid by the state.
Berman said the center's priority to Medicaid patients is what sets it apart from private homes.
"We're not out to make money," she said. "We're providing a service to people who wouldn't ordinarily have the service available to them."
Now that the center has reached a major milestone, its supporters are hopeful it will continue to be owned and operated by the county for many years to come.
"As long as the facility continues to say to the community, 'You are welcome here,'" Anderson said, "the community will say back, 'We want this facility to continue.'"