Over the past few months in my Digital History course, we have been learning about the history of poorhouses/poor farms in the United States, specifically between the late 1800s and the early-mid 1900s. By definition, a poorhouse is “an institution where paupers were maintained with public funds.” Poor farms and poor houses, in academics, tend to fall under the same basic definition. Michael R. Daley and Peggy Pittman-Munke, from Murray State University, stated that “poor farms were important rural institutions that cared for a wide range of poor and dependent people in the 19th and 20th centuries… yet today are little remembered.”
Studies done have shown that poorhouses were an enormous byproduct of the depression that was faced in the United States during those days, and is placed an unprecedented burden on the poor relief system of the country. Funds were created for mothers, blind people, elderly, and veterans, but the majority of them received very little from these funds created by the government. Instead of living off of government money in their own homes, they became charges of the state and had no choice other than to live in a rundown poorhouse with many others in the exact same situation.
Anyone who entered a poor farm had to surrender their rights as a citizen, including losing the right to vote and the ability to move wherever and whenever they wanted. Going to a poor farm also meant they had to surrender any and all personal money ad property. Life was not completely taken care of once inside the poor farms, however, and there were many difficulties that the inmates, as they were called, had to face. The residents of poor farms could be auctioned off to families in the community, creating complete loss of independence. For many, this was believed to be their “last earthly stop,” as most who entered a poor farm did not leave before death took them away.
Discussing my own town’s personal history, Butler County had its very own poor farm that started in the late 1800s. This poor farm gave people products like wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetable, and certain types of meat. However, the niceties might have ended there. In 1934, the state began investigating allegations of abusive treatment and brutality toward the facility’s residents. This prompted speculations about how deep the abuse trail ran and if it was a long-lasting problem in the Butler poor farm’s existence. Nowadays, the poor farm has turned into a nursing home that cares for those in need, including those with developmental disabilities and the elderly. It is still possible, however, to view the records of those who lived on the poor farm.
Learning about the experiences of those who lived in poorhouses or on poor farms back then has put many things into perspective for me. I thought that poor people back then simply lived on the street, but now I know that it was not that terrible of a fate to be poor as long as there was a poor farm in the community. Even so, the conditions that those who lived in the poorhouses put up with is unimaginable, so the situations could have been made so much better for all those involved.