Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

My mother always joked about probably having to go to the poor farm one day and I wondered what she meant. Recently there was an interesting article in our newspaper about them. And with our economy what it is these days, I thought it a timely subject.

Poor Farms originated in the 1820’s in the East to care for paupers. Slowly as settlers moved west so did the system for helping the poor and infirmed. Poor Farms were set up and operated by the different counties and they remained a county responsibility until their demise in the 1930’s shortly after the government passed the Social Security Act.

Eastern poor farms were much better than those on the western frontier, but neither held any semblance to living in the lap of luxury. Counties bought or rented farms and overseers or superintendents were hired to provide the care. Usually a poor farm consisted of the main building for the superintendent and his family and from six to eight small outbuildings that each sometimes housed up to 10 to 15 paupers or “inmates” as they were sometimes called. The men were kept segregated from the women and families were broken up. Indeed, some poor farms resembled jails for once they took a person in, most were there for life. In an effort to make the farm self-sufficient and productive, each able-bodied person was assigned a job and they were forced to do it come rain or shine. But again it really depended on how compassionate the overseer was. There were good ones and bad ones.

Contracting out care to the lowest bidder often resulted in attracting unsavory characters. One woman in particular, Annie Cook, extensively abused (and there were even alleged instances of murder) the destitute and downtrodden of Lincoln County, Nebraska.

Texas in the mid-1800’s reviled the poor so much that they sometimes housed them with criminals in a multi-purpose building that was a “Jail and Poorhouse.” They treated paupers as if poverty was a crime. And other times paupers were thrown in with the mentally ill which was a horrible way to treat people who had no where else to go.

Also, there was a practice of dumping their indigents in the next county so they wouldn’t have to care for them. Honestly!

Out in the West, the system for caring for the poor was less than desirable. For the most part, the poor were viewed as being lazy, criminal, or intemperate and the fault lay with those who had the misfortune to be without. As if they could willingly change the hands of fate.

Thank goodness, not all were like Annie Cook and other caretakers who were similar.

The kind benevolent poor farms were a real godsend for people, especially the elderly and the sick, who had nowhere else to turn. They were taken in and provided relief with genuine sympathy and compassion.

In some instances, counties chose individuals to provide the care – a doctor or a boarding house for instance and paid them a certain amount. That was the perfect solution for out of the way places or where settlers were few and far between.

Wouldn’t this make a great story? The wheels in my brain are turning.

The Western trail was littered with people who were down on their luck but who never saw the inside of a poor farm. These people came West with a support system – fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles who helped each other through good times and lean.

But, not everyone was fortunate to have had that support. Those without family to reach out to were the ones who fell at the mercy of poor farms.

My parents often spoke about how much worse their situation would’ve been during the Great Depression had it not been for family. They stuck together and what one had, they all had. That kind of family cohesiveness and unity brought them through one of the country’s worst times. They did what they had to do to survive often swallowing their pride.

The Good Book says “the poor we have with us always.” That’s certainly true. Today we have millions of homeless people. How do you view them?

What are your feelings on the subject? Have you ever heard Poor Farms mentioned before? If so, do you think they were beneficial?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

34 thoughts on “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?”

  1. oh my gosh…I’ve heard this term all my life and never even knew the saying came from actual places!

    It is really so sad that people were treated so poorly, just for being down on their luck and in need! I feel pretty certain that those people who abuse those who are less fortunate than themselves will get their punishment one day!

  2. Growing up I heard “gonna put us in the poorhouse” more often. Poor Farm I haven’t heard all that much, but thanks for sharing so much about them.

    In regard to our homeless- It leaves me in a quandry and makes me really sad. Perhaps Poor Farms were beneficial, given the right circumstances. Nowadays we have the Y and shelters, but they aren’t something that’s there for the long haul.

    It makes me think of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith and how, if you weren’t in line early enough to get into a shelter, you were left to fend for yourself, so at one point he had to take his son and lock them in a public bathroom for the night, just to have a place to stay.

    It’s truly a scary state of affairs.

  3. Wow, Linda, thanks for such a thought provoking topic. I’ve researchrf a ton on this era and have never come across the subject. Like Taryn Raye, I was raised hearing “gonna put us in the poorhouse” but had no idea there was such a place. Thought it was kinda like puttin’ swats on the shelf for later. As far as dumping indigents, unfortunately, this is still a practice in the today’s medical society…although not as widespread as it was 30 years ago. Basically, finding a reason to take an injured person miles from the nearest hospital in order for them to be tended at a hospital designated for indigent care. Linda, my wheels are churning, too. Thanks for sharing. Hugs, Phyliss

  4. Hi Pamela T,

    It seems the poor have always gotten the bad end of things and not because of anything they did. I feel so sorry for the homeless people in our country even though some are there by choice. I can’t imagine not having a home to go to or food to eat.

    Hope you have a great day!

  5. Hi Melissa!

    Great to see you here this morning. Yes, I agree that the people who abuse the poor should be dealt with very harshly. There’s no excuse. I feel very drawn to the poor people and I think it’s because I can from parents who struggled all their lives to make ends meet. But, you know, it made me a much better person and one who empathizes with the less fortunate.

    Hope your girls are doing good. Thanks for coming.

  6. Hi Taryn!

    Thanks for reminding me of the movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I loved that story! It really tugged at my heart. The bathroom scene you spoke of was my favorite I think of the entire movie. It showed such depth of character and love for his son.

    Poor houses were much the same as poor farms except they were in the city and the facility was multi-story and looked like a hospital. I just chose poor farms to focus on because they were mostly in the west.

    Thanks for coming to comment. I appreacite it as always.

  7. Good Morning Phyliss!!

    Great to have you come and leave a comment. Bless you! Hope everything is going well for you today.

    Like you said, I never knew poor farms and poor houses were real places until our newspaper published the article. I thought it was just a joke to talk about going to one. Evidently though, those places were feared by our grandparent’s and parent’s generation. I hate to say it, but we may be headed back there. Our economy is in terrible shape and I can’t see that it’ll be fixed anytime soon.

    I love to write stories about characters who come from humble or no means. Those characters usually have such an amazing depth for love and understanding. And throw in a poor farm overseer who’s abusive and you have a wonderful villian.

    I’ll see you and Jodi tomorrow!

  8. Oh, Linda, I had no idea these places existed. At least some of them were good to people. The problem of poor, homeless people is still with us today and the solutions are no better–maybe worse because there seems to be less family support. Thanks for opening our eyes to this social condition and what was done in the past.
    And yes, what great story material! (I would write down the idea that popped into my head but it may be the same as yours).

  9. Lincoln County Nebraska, huh? Sounds like a great place for research.

    My reaction to this isn’t as sympathetic as it should be I’m afraid. It sounds like people were often treated very, very badly.


    This did spur people on to not fall so far that they ended up in a Poor Farm.

    Now a days when there is such a vast support system for people who cannot or will not take care of themselves…we are destroying countless lives by making it easy, even comfortable, for people to depend on welfare and other programs to take care of them for multiple generations.

    All the death from drug abuse and the violence that stems from drug and alcohol addiction and the neglected and damaged babies that result stem from social welfare. I suspect that if you got really REALLY hungry, you might pull yourself together and go to work, instead of surviving, even on the street, on someone elses tax dollars.

    Yes, those people in poor farms suffered, but fighting like crazy to stay out of them produced a hard working, self-suffient kind of American that made this country very strong. So yes, bad things happened, but I’d submit to you that LESS bad things happened then than now.

  10. Amen, to Mary’s comment. People on welfare seem to know how to work the system to stay on the dole. Having babies to get more money seems kind of dumb. My feeling is that anyone on welfare that had more than 2 kids should be forced to have permanent sterilization. Both women and men, if you can find the men.

    It seems to me that at one time there was a poor farm south of Tekamah. My mom pointed out the location one time when we were on our way to Omaha.

  11. Linda, I, too, never knew there were actual Poor Farms. My mother used the expression all the time when we were growing up. I just thought it was one of her famous slang words. 🙂

    Annie Cook once lived in my hometown of No. Platte, NE. Nellie Snyder Yost wrote a book about her called “Evil Obsession.” It’s very dark, very gripping. When the book came out, the folks in No. Platte were stunned that such an evil person lived in the community at the time.

    Great, very thought-provoking post today!

  12. Hi Elizabeth,

    The Bible says the poor we’ll have with us always. I guess there’ll always be people who can’t make it no matter the state of the world.

    Glad you stopped by, my Filly sister!

  13. Linda,
    Like everyone I’ve heard of poor farms and poor houses. The thought of them hurts my heart.
    I’ve also been struggling with a secondary character’s modivation for days. You just fired an idea in my mind. Thanks.

  14. Hi Mary,

    You’re right about people back before welfare was established. They had too much pride to take a handout. A lot of people starved because of their pride. During the Depression people had to swallow their pride if they wanted to eat. My parents talked about standing in soup and bread lines and how much they hated that.

    A lot, but not all, of the poor today wear their destitution like a badge. It has become too easy for them to get help. There are so many resources for the destitute today and most are really lazy. They don’t want to work. They just want everything handed to them. As you said, the system of caring for them has become a kind of trap.

    Hope you have a wonderful day!

  15. Hi Sue,

    You’re right that we have so many women who are having babies just to stay on welfare. It’s not that they want so many children or can take care of them, it’s that they want free government help.

    Times back in the early years were much different and they had none of the resources we have today. Social Security and welfare really changed things, but not necessarily for the good most of the time.

    Thanks for dropping by to leave a comment.

  16. Hi Pam!

    It’s amazing that you’ve actually heard of Annie Cook. I would imagine that such a book about her did cause quite a stir in Platte. A lot of things went on behind the scenes that no one knew were happening. Except the people who were trying their best to stay out of them. I’m sure there were had to be lots of rumors about ill treatment for them to be so frightened of those places.

    My mom, God bless her soul, felt the same way about nursing homes because most were similar in their treatment of sick and elderly people. Mom always said they were just a place to die.

    Glad you enjoyed the post. Have a great day!

  17. Hi Jodi!

    This is such a big surprise. I’m so glad you came today.

    I always feel as if there’s a reason for the way things go. Maybe I wrote this blog just so you could find some motivation for your character. I think that’s neat. If I can help in any way, even unwittingly, I’m certainly glad to do so.

    Reading about poor farms and poor houses really opened my eyes and touched me. I would’ve hated to live back then and have those places as the only option when I got sick or old and had nowhere else to turn. It must’ve been the lowest point a person could go.

    Wishing you a great day filled with oodles of inspiration! 🙂

  18. Hi Linda, wow, what a subject. As always, I’ve learned something I didn’t know before from the Fillies.

    And I feel a bit guilty right now. Just about all our friends and family have it pretty good. I’m glad I get to live vicariously through historical novels that I KNOW will have a good ending.

    Thanks for a great message and blog, Linda.


  19. Hi Linda–what a sad topic, but very interesting. I had no idea there were poor farms in the U.S. I was aware of it in the U.K. (Charles Dickens father went to debtors’ prison, and he as a child had to go, too, because there was no other place for them. Hence stories like Oliver Twist and “Please sir, I’d like some more.”—based on his own life!)

    This sparked an idea for one of my novels (The Commander). The heroine’s father, when they lived in Ireland, was imprisoned in debtors’ prison along with the heroine as a young girl and her family. The hero’s father was their jailer. So when they all emigrated to Alberta, she hated his family. They had to go through a lot to work out their happy ending! Her grandpa was also in the novel, and his hatred was even stronger–I loved writing the emotional ending, because the tables were turned–the jailer (now an old man) lost everything in a fire, and her grandpa took up a collection to build him a new home.

    Thanks for the new information. If you write that book, I’m cheering for you!

  20. What a great post! It’s certainly started my “what ifs” whirling. Thanks for the information. I’d never heard of the poor farms in the west before, either.

  21. Hi Tanya,

    Glad I could give you something new to think about. Yeah, the Fillies try to do that a lot. 🙂

    Turn about is fair play I say. You taught us about the Hawaiian cowboy last weekend. That was really interesting and it was something I never knew.

    You’re right about life being kinda depressing at times. People are not always nice and helpful to each other. Especially these days. I try my best to avoid homeless people so I won’t have to think about what they’re going through. That’s bad. And you have to be so careful who you try to help.

    I’m with you on living vicariously through romance novels. We’re guaranteed of a happy ending.

    Hope you have an excellent day. 🙂

  22. Hi Kate,

    Glad you liked my blog. Hey, I didn’t know you wrote a book about a debtor’s prison in Ireland! That’s neat. People who are down and out make excellent stories. There’s so much you can do with them.

    I LOVED your Klondike series books. Are you going to have a fourth one in those? I hope so.

  23. Hi Linda – I always thought “poor farms” were an expression. I didn’t know they existed for real and that they had a history that went way back. Thanks for sharing this bit of knowledge I had never learned about! It’s always great to learn something new.
    Great blog!!

  24. Hi Pat,

    Glad you enjoyed the post today. I’m always thrilled when I can start off some “what if” moments for writers. At least I may have provided a little fodder for your brain.

    Have a great day!

  25. Hi Charlene,

    Glad you enjoyed my post today. Poor farms are a piece of little-known history. I wouldn’t have known about them had it not been for my parents who talked about them. I think the good poor farms served a wonderful purpose. It gave destitute people an option when they ran out. I’m sure they were grateful for a place to live and food to eat. And they got medical care, although I’m not certain how good it was.

    Have you recovered from the wedding?

  26. Thanks, Linda! So happy you enjoyed the Klondike books. I have another 3 coming out set on the Alaskan side of the gold rush, with a few overlapping characters. Next one is coming out a few days after yours, in Feb. It’s called WANTED IN ALASKA. Thanks for asking!

    I’ve got your latest on my shopping list for my next bookstore visit. GIVE ME A TEXAN (Whoa, that’s a hot trailer with a hot kiss!) I also put Mary’s on there. I’ve gotta catch up on reading my fellow Fillies! I’m thinking I’ll get some time during the holidays. My next deadline is Dec 15, thankfully. 🙂

  27. Kate,

    Oh my gosh! I’m going to have to make a note of “Wanted in Alaska.” It sounds wonderful. Can’t wait to read it and the two others that go with your new series. Love that title! I can only imagine what it’s about. You have a real knack for writing characters that snuggle up to you.

    Thanks for the comments about Give Me a Texan. Glad you liked the trailer.

  28. Hi Linda – yes, I’ve recovered and am back at work. But the lasting effects of the Perfect Wedding are still with me. Good memories. I can’t wait to share some pictures with all of you.:)

  29. Interesting post.
    I knew poor farms existed. I lived in an area where there was a road called Poor Farm Road. You could actually see the remains of the farm. It was owned by the county.

  30. Hi Kate. As one of the coauthors of “Give Me a Texan”, I’m pleased you have it on your shopping list. Jodi’s son is the owner of Readerhook.com and he is the creator of our trailer. Man have you ever seen such an up front and personal honkin’ big kiss in your born days? Linda, I still think this was an awesome post, and agree with everyone that it’s such a sad thing to happen in any country, much less the USA. Linda, we’re waitin’ on you to ride into town tomorrow. Hugs, Phyliss

  31. I recall hearing the phrase “going to the poor
    farm,” but I was a child and didn’t understand
    what was being discussed!

    Pat Cochran

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