“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?