Growing up I heard the word poorhouse referenced frequently. I remember it being used in sentences such as someone was “going to end up in the poorhouse”, someone was “sent to the poorhouse” or “we will be in the poorhouse.” I thought the term poorhouse was a figure of speech. Later I learned that there really was such a thing as a poorhouse.
Most of us today have become so accustomed to social security and other public support programs that it is hard to imagine that there was virtually no help for people in need before those programs became available.
Almshouses were formed as extensions of the church system and funded totally by charities and charitable organizations. They mostly consisted of the poor, widows and elderly. The first Almshouse was established in the United States in 1622 in Boston, Massachusetts. The almshouses were rarely self-sustaining. Before the civil war, local officials regulated the almshouses but did not ensure residents were being cared for properly. By the end of the 1800s, almshouses began to be replaced with poorhouses, poor farms, asylums and institutions.
Poorhouses or poor farms were county-run residences where paupers were supported at the public’s expense. These were common in the United States beginning in the middle of the 1800s. Most were working farms that produced at least some of the produce, grain and livestock that the residents consumed. Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent their health would allow in the fields, housekeeping and care of other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations were minimal.
In 1910, the Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, released Bulletin 120, entitled Paupers in Almshouses. This bulletin provided the guidelines for operating almshouses, poorhouses and poor farms. At the time of the publication, there were more than 84,000 people in poorhouses in the United States. Poorhouses were an entity all their own and were not to be confused with prisons, mental institutions, orphanages or tuberculosis asylums.
Kentucky Statues authorized county governments to purchase up to 200 acres of land for the building of poorhouses or poor farms, which usually consisted of two houses, one for the supervisor (some people referred to the supervisors as caretakers) and his family and one for the residents. Other buildings constructed were corn cribs, meat and coal houses.
People were declared paupers by the county judge and fiscal court and were sent to the county poorhouse or poor farm where they were provided shelter, food and access to medical treatment. If they were able to work, they were expected to do so or could be imprisoned if they refused. Work involved industrial, domestic and farm labor for both men and women. Children could be housed in the poorhouse or poor farm with their parent or parents. The county furnished clothing, bed linens, and any food that could not be produced on the farm. The supervisor was responsible for ensuring the residents were fed and clean and that they had access to medical treatment if necessary. The supervisor was also responsible for making sure the residents completed their chores. The residents prepared their own food that was provided to them and did other domestic chores as well as farm or industrial work.
Some people viewed the existence of poorhouses as a good thing. However, others thought that being in the poorhouses was equivalent to being a slave or being in prison. Many states required paupers to take an oath swearing to their lack of worldly goods and their need for assistance. Once they were residents, they no longer had control over what they ate, wore, how they worked and acted. Some were grateful for the opportunity, and some were not.
Almost every county in Kentucky had an appointed poorhouse or poor farm. In Meade County, the poor farm was located at what most life-long residents of Meade County know as the Marshall Farris farm near Ekron. One of the things Marshall’s farm was famous for was strawberries. I remember picking strawberries with my parents many times until the one time a snake slithered over my hand while picking the strawberries. I refused to go back after that! Marshall died in 2001 at the age of 73 years old.
I spoke with Gary Benham, a Meade County resident who said that his grandfather, Modie Cain, was the supervisor of the farm from approximately 1929 to 1935. Modie’s life experiences probably assisted him in managing the farm. His father had gone west at the time of the Gold Rush to grease the axles on the wagons traveling west to make money. His family never heard from him again. Many years later they found out when a family member researched their family history that he had died on the way out west. He left a wife and seven children to support. At a fairly young age, Modie went to live with two women who ran a boarding house in White Mills, Kentucky. He learned all about running the boarding house and did most of the work for them. He came back to Meade County when he was 16 years old. It was only by hard work on the family farm that Modie’s mother and siblings had managed to survive and not have to go to the poor farm. Later when Modie left his job as supervisor of the poor farm, he returned to the land that belonged to his mother and farmed it until his death.
One of Gary’s cousins who lives in Louisville told him she could remember coming down on Saturday mornings to visit the Cains and there would be several children waiting outside the door at their house hoping for something to eat because their parents were all out working in the fields. Gary’s grandmother would cook breakfast for all of them.
After the Great Depression, poorhouses and poor farms faded out as the Social Security Act took effect in 1935 and other social welfare programs became available. Most of the remaining poorhouses and poor farms were closed by the 1940s, but a few remained in states such as Texas until the 1970s.
I spoke with the current owner of the farm. The family had worked for Marshall Farris on the farm for many years. They lived in the original supervisor’s house from 1986 to 1994. There were remnants of the boarding house left next door to the supervisor’s house. The family inherited a large portion of the farm in 2001 and moved back onto the farm in 2002. Both the original supervisor’s house and the boarding house have been torn down. There was a family cemetery on the farm for a family who had all died of scarlet fever. That cemetery is across the road from where the current owner lives now and is no longer part of the original property. There is also reportedly a slave cemetery on the property, but the current owner did not know about it or its location.
Sometimes I think that even with all of today’s available social programs, the economy and rising costs might, figuratively, if not literally, send us all “to the poorhouse!”