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Poverty’s Monument: The Poorhouse

©Mildred B. McCormick


James Boswell’s famous Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. (1791) contains the observation "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization." He might well have included the word "tribulation" in his statement.

When Jesus chided the disciples with "For ye have the poor always with you," alms were dispensed by throwing scraps to beggars, or through other individual mercies of more affluent citizens. In England in 1834 the "new poor laws" divided families by replacing the individual dole with the workhouse, where families were housed in separate groups of men, women or children. It was this distressful social condition that inspired Dickens to write Oliver Twist in 1837-39.

Spinoza had offered the admonition that "the care of the poor is incumbent on Society as a whole" as early as 1677 (Ethics). One of the early attempts in Illinois to answer the challenge was the County Almshouse later called the Poorhouse or Poor Farm. For The Record, a quarterly newsletter of Illinois State Archives reports (Summer 1987) on the history of the almshouse.

Initial legislation regarding the poor was enacted 5 March 1819. County commissioners’ courts were to appoint two overseers of the poor in each township. Two justices of the peace were required to assess the merits of each case, and eligible needy (residents of the county for one year) were entered on township poor books. Names and ages of paupers were placed on public display. Bids were taken for one year. Each six months, one-half of the guardian’s outlay was refunded. Proof of ill-treatment meant one-half of that sum could be withheld.

Guardians of the poor received the pauper’s labor in return for maintenance. Refusal to work meant denial of relief. Orphans were apprenticed; female indentures ended at 18, males at 21 years of age. Upkeep for those unable to work was decided according to physical or mental condition of the individual, and his apparent needs.

In 1839 courts were authorized to establish tax-supported poorhouses (with consent of voters). Admission to the institution required much the same contract between paupers and guardians as under the older system. Paupers could not leave unless officially discharged. Living conditions were to be "adequate but not such to encourage individuals to linger longer than necessary." It is clear, in most cases, that such encouragement was one commodity which was in very short supply

Many insane were housed in almshouses even after 1875 when the state had three asylums. Great Depression poor swelled rolls to the point that poorhouses were outmoded, and in 1949 state law was amended to stipulate only infirm and chronically ill would be accepted. Other persons received public assistance through direct payments. The 1967 Public Aid Code deauthorized all county poorhouses.

The Saline County Historical Society Museum is housed in what Curator Mary Humm believes is the last county poorhouse building still standing in Illinois. In 1960 the Society took a 99-year lease on the property which was one of those designated as a Poor Farm since it actually was a working farm which produced most of the food consumed at the institution.

According to Mrs. Humm and the publication Records of the Poor, Saline County, Illinois, 1847-1888 (compiled by Rebecca Schmook and Mary Brim of Saline County Genealogical Society, 1988), the farm was purchased in 1863. At that time it included 170 acres purchased from Kinchen and Faithy Odum for $1402.50. A contract for construction of a building was let the same year to Zephamiah Philips, but the first log building was not ready for occupancy until 9 December 1864, completed by John Williford. Dr. C. Baker was appointed to care for the first paupers. In 1865 Samuel Stiff purchased the contract. Aaron Barger was the last caretaker (1951).

In June of 1872 during a serious smallpox outbreak, it is believed the pest house was built on the northeast corner of the yard. People who had survived the disease nursed the quarantined cases (most of the nurses were men). The pest house building remained until 1938-39 when it was torn down by Paul Harry. Mrs. Humm says it was sometimes used for the delousing of paupers being admitted to the Poor Farm.

Records indicate the original brick "Box House" was completed in 1877 by A. Winterberger. This is the east half of the present building. It is believed the west half was added in 1890. The old wash house is now a gift shop.

In Pope County the poor were "sold" to individual bidders, as they were in Saline County during much of the 19th century. However, in 1868 (4 June) the Commissioner’s Court authorized J.M. Boicourt, John M. Raum and John Gilbert "to contract for a farm for a Poor House" (Book H. p. 534). They were ordered to report to the Court at the September term. Unfortunately the proceedings of the 9 September term were not transcribed on the permanent record, but the 29 December session recorded an order to pay "John Gilbert or bearer $2000 for 160 acres of land for a Pauper Farm." This debt was to be "exempt from all taxes."

The land description was not placed on the 29 December record (we assume it was presented in the 9 September report), but an entry 2 June 1874 records a petition from James M. Hendley, seeking a deed from the county for 90 acres for which he had completed payment of $500. This land was described as the "Pauper Farm" and was located in Section 22, Township 13S--Range 6E, which is west of Golconda and north of Route 146. The Plat Book shows the land is now part of the Charles Mankin farm.

After the county-owned farm was sold, bids were again let for care of paupers with the facilities provided by the successful bidder. The last Pope County Poor Farm was owned by William Blanchard of the Oak (Blanchard) community (from 1910 until the end of this phase of county welfare) with the exception of one year when Blanchard was underbid. The following report was unearthed among miscellaneous papers at the Pope County courthouse by Dennis Smith, graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana, who was kind enough to give me a copy, as well as to list page numbers of other references to paupers in court records:





Inspected April 11th, 1918.

Pope County does not maintain a County Farm. Those for whom the county cares have been boarded in the home of Mr. William Blanchard for the last eight and a half years. The one disadvantage of this is the inaccessibility of the Blanchard farm. It is a long eighteen mile drive from the county seat over rough hilly roads. The county pays $10.00 a month board for each of its charges.

There are two people staying there now, one an old woman who is almost totally blind and helpless, and the other a man who is paralyzed. Their meals are carried to them in their own rooms.

The woman has a room back of the kitchen. It contains a bed and a stove and a chair. It is very clean. She is a kindly woman, well cared for and satisfied. Her one fear seemed to be that some one would take her away from Mrs. Blanchard. She appealed to the Inspector to know if any one could make her go away against her will.

Built on one side of the house, like the "Prophet’s Chamber," is a little room reached by a door from the outside of the house. It is a bare little place, boarded up with rough lumber, and contains a window, a bed, a chair and a stove. This is the room of the paralyzed man. Besides being almost helpless from paralysis, he lost one leg from the knee down in a timber accident years ago. He moves around by "hiking" a small wooden chair that he has learned to manipulate. He looked clean and well fed, but very sad. This man could be made much more comfortable and the people around him would be greatly relieved if he had a wheel-chair. Surely there is some one in Pope County who would provide this if the need were known. If the people of his county could see him, they would not rest until he was provided with a wheel-chair so that he could get out in the sunshine and get as much cheer as possible in the remaining days that he must somehow live through.

At the price that is paid for the board and care of these people, Mr. Blanchard should not be expected to furnish much except food. The Commissioners should themselves see that there is extra flooring put down in the men’s room at the expense of the county, and that both rooms are made warmer before another winter. Pope County should co-operate more closely with the people who are shouldering this responsibility for them, and should show their appreciation and willingness to help.

In the year from September, 1916 to September, 1917, it cost $255.00 for the board of the county dependents. (This typed copy of the report was unsigned.)

I am indebted to John and Vivian Blanchard, Golconda, Route 3, who shared family stories of the Poor Farm. William was a great uncle of John, and Vivian worked at the farm as a young woman. It was by that time a boardinghouse for old-age pensioners and was operated by William’s daughter, "Aunt Alice."

My visit with the Blanchards gave me a new perspective on the situation at the Blanchard Poor Farm, and further research added even more to my education on the subject of early public welfare. If I had been asked, before, for my thoughts on the nature of poor farms or almshouses I suppose I would have assumed they were similar to today’s nursing homes. Such is the pattern of ignorance. I was particularly appalled to learn that infants and children were housed with the ill, infirm and insane, in some cases.

Dennis Smith and I read the inspection report of the Pope County Poor Farm with feelings of compassion and depression for such pathetic victims of poverty. I can now report that this was the most positive picture I encountered during my research in Pope and Saline counties. The Blanchards, however, saw quite another story enacted, one even more disturbing than the official report.

The old man in the report, who was known to both John and Vivian, did not lack opportunity to "get out in the sunshine." He also got out in the cold. He cut wood for the stoves, all day long, somehow manipulating his splint-bottomed chair as a crutch. The old woman worked in the garden, and once told John’s father that "they make me do it." Vivian, as a young, sympathetic woman, accustomed to giving quick aid to those who needed it, was just as prompt to offer help to the paupers, only to be told to "let them alone, they’re all right." She worried about their being cold, or having to work when they were ill. John’s family sometimes gave little gifts, such as tobacco, to the paupers.

As I said earlier, this farm was one of the better ones; paupers were definitely second-class and had little concern paid to their "civil rights." But neither citizens nor courts saw much cause for great concern. That is just the way things were; there was more contempt than pity manifested toward the pauper. A report from Saline County, however, reprinted in Records of the Poor (vi, vii) shows that there were limits to what the courts would tolerate in treatment of the poor. In September 1879 the overseer was "accused of abusing, starving, and not caring for the paupers under his supervision. The court met in special session and took a personal tour of the premises. The overseer was relieved of his position and another was appointed."

In 1910, conditions again warranted the intercession of authorities. A report read as follows (Records, vii), sent in November 1910 to the States Charities Commission: "Saline County Farm/John Douglas, superintendent. The farm is located about two miles from Harrisburg. The farm--123 acres--is very poor land. The superintendent pays $250.00 for the use of the land and keeps the inmates at $115.00 per head for a year. He clothes, feeds, furnishes fuel, bedding, light, funeral expenses, and what medical attendance they receive for that price. The county doctor does not attend paupers at the county farm.

"The inmates and the keeper live in the same house; inmates occupy the rooms, without classification. During the inspection, while the ages were being ascertained in the keepers’ parlor, many of the inmates were in the room.

"The building is a two story brick with a basement. The basement is damp and insanitary. An old blind soldier who receives a pension lives in the furnace room which is absolutely unaired. He gets $12.00 a month pension; the county farm keeper has been appointed his conservator and gets the entire amount. He keeps the man in this dark corner because he has no control of himself and is filthy. The result is that an odor permeates the house which is noticeable all through the building. The in-mates--men and women--eat in a room adjoining this same furnace room. It is lighted by two small windows which are always closed.

"Men and women are not separated in any way. One feeble-minded woman became pregnant over a year ago through intercourse with an inmate who had a bad case of asthma. They went away and were married. In less than four months they were both back. A child was born. It is now one year old and the woman is again pregnant. The man and woman occupy the same room.

"Another woman is at the farm with an illegitimate child of one year.

"At the time of inspection, one girl of twenty-five, who had a bad case of consumption, occupied a room with her mother and father. The father is crippled on account of work in the mines.

"The bedbugs are still plentiful.

"The keeper says all of the inmates get mad and refuse to work part of the time. He has been superintendent at the farm for eighteen years, with the exception of an eighteen months’ departure." (The 1900 census showed a population of 18, ages 1 year through 73.)

Schmook and Brim commented on the situation:

"What started as an effort to help the county poor became another good idea that didn’t work. The once lovely grounds, the vegetable garden and dairy fell into ruin through neglect. The superintendents found themselves caring for people who made little effort to care for themselves or their surroundings. The farm sagged into the new century as more of the nightmare than the dream of its creators" (vii).

Of course, the record is not an unbroken tale of indifference, cruel and sadistic practices. There were compassionate guardians of the poor, but as is true with aircraft and teenagers, only those with problems got much publicity. There were also citizens who reported evidence of abuse. The court records at Golconda show several instances of matters brought to the attention of the court. (Apparently regular inspections were not made until the later years.) Throughout the period individuals contracted with the Poor Farm for the labor of paupers in exchange for maintenance and a small stipend. One entry, 1 August 1897 (Book M) lists an order for $12.20, expenses for taking a man to Chicago Ear and Eye Clinic. Another refers to funds for special education for a minor. In Saline County, 5 June 1865, the Court allowed a poor person who required "careful and constant attention" to remain with his family and to receive $199.75 annually from pauper funds.

It is also true that the great "test of civilization" has touched the heart and conscience of society through the ages, as those I have quoted prove. Others have agonized over the plight of the poor:

"Few, save the poor, feel for the poor," from "The Poor" (Letitia Elizabeth Landow, 1802-1838). "You come here to watch us feeding, as they watch the captured beast" ("Christmas Day In The Workhouse," George Robert Sims, 1847-1922).

We still have not found the answer. We continue to face the challenge (there are those who feel that society has become the abused). There is one quotation whose validity seems to remain unchallenged: "The poor shall never cease out of the land" (Deuteronomy, XV, 11).

Besides those mentioned above I wish to thank County Clerk Evelyn Hogg, Abstracter Connie Gibbs, Rodney Blanchard and Rebecca Schmook (for her permission to quote from Records of the Poor.) Mary Humm was especially gracious in spending an afternoon to give me a tour of the Saline County Historical Museum, its grounds, and the Pauper Cemetery. John and Vivian Blanchard are also due special thanks for giving me a morning to tell the story of the Blanchard Poor Farm.


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