When I visited Washington County, Tennessee last summer I was very surprised to hear their old Poor Farm/ County Home was still standing. I spoke with a woman who worked there. She told me the county home in the late 20th and early 21st Century performed a positive role in the community. The poor farm was first established on that site in 1895, and closed in 2004. The name poor farm brought to mind the Victorian workhouses and debtors prisons in Charles Dickens novels. When I heard it was still standing I was like, wow, I’d love to see that. The actual building isn’t something out of a Victorian novel just a simple structure that doesn’t suggest a poor farm, it actually looks more like a nursing home.
My ears perked up when the woman told me she worked at the old poor farm because my grandfather Charles Forgey’s great-uncle, Dennis Callahan, died at the poor farm in Brownstown, Jackson County, Indiana in 1907. He was there because no one was capable of taking care of him in their home. He was very advanced in age, 84 when he was admitted and 88 when he died, and suffered from epilepsy. I was disappointed the Brownstown Banner further stigmatized him by reporting that he died in the poor farm (you can see the article on the top of the page). I suppose everyone in that small town knew already, but still it stings to see the stigmatizing word used. Of course the use of the name was meant to stigmatize and discourage others from seeking relief from the county.
Institutions for housing the poor were first formed in America beginning in the 17th century, and were modeled on the English models providing local relief. Social reform movements in the 19th Century pushed for expanding institutional living in hopes of training the handicapped, curing or just warehousing the mentally ill, and reforming the poor and intemperate. There were also boarding schools organized to Americanize Native Americans by removing them from their communities and families.
The institutionalization movement meant the number of these institutions increased throughout the 19th and early 20th century. When I visited Knoxville, Tennessee someone pointed out the deaf school building is still standing.
Being poor was considered a moral failing, which should be punished, and at the same time the poor needed structure and discipline to reform themselves. Conditions in the poorhouse/poor farms were designed to discourage the poor from even considering becoming a ward of the town or county.
Poor Farms were rural poorhouses. On poor farms residents worked on the farm to raise food for themselves and the other residents. Sometimes they sold the produce to generate money.
The poorhouse/ farm began as an institution where anyone the county or town found to be incapable of taking care of themselves was sent. This could be the poor, orphans, the handicapped, the elderly, and the mentally ill. Over time new institutions were opened exclusively to care for individual groups such as the mentally ill. Often the mentally ill were kept on the poor farms in a separate building. Later they were sent to State Mental Hospitals.
The poor sent to the poorhouse/ farm were wards of the state; they could not leave without permission. The fact they were called inmates also suggests the fact they were often held without their against their will. As a matter of fact some inmates never left and are buried on the property of these institutions, without any markers or records stating who they were. They were poor, therefore, they were unimportant.
The Poor Farm populations increased when counties ended outdoor relief or direct payments to the poor living outside these institutions at the end of the 19th century. This resulted in overcrowding.
Rules were made to instill discipline in inmates. Failure to follow rules could result in reduction of your rations or another punishment.
Age and disability were the most common reasons someone was admitted to the poor house. Because of the age, poor living conditions, and the general health of those admitted to the poorhouse the mortality rate in these institutions was high.
Punishment and deplorable living conditions drove some poor farm inmates to escape. An inspector described conditions at one poor farm,”windows without shades, filthy beds, linen not changed for weeks, vermin; toilets filthy, unsanitary; clothes unclean; common bath; no segregation; two women sleeping in toilet room; nauseating odors. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teach, described her experience in the poorhouse “, I doubt if life, or eternity for that matter, is long enough to erase the errors and ugly blots scored upon my brain by those dismal years,”
Poor farms in the South were segregated by race.
Many argued outdoor relief or direct payments to the poor and elderly were more economical since staff had to be paid to run the poor farms. They felt money for salaries and, maintenance fees of the buildings, could be better spent if given directly to the needy.
In the 20th Century the poor had better options than the poorhouse/farm. More direct relief was becoming available. Only those who couldn’t physically take care of themselves were housed in these institutions. That meant the population was mainly elderly.
My grandfather Charles Lynn Forgey was able to receive direct relief payments by working for the WPA (Works Projects Administration) during the Great Depression. It was a federal government program that put the unemployed to work in various ways doing work for their communities. When he lived in Glendale his job was to identify the species of trees planted on public land. My grandfather was a self trained botanist. When the family moved to Puente his skills from working as a carpenter were put to use as a member of the crew building for Hudson School (my grandfather had worked as a carpenter, and he built the first house the family lived in). Below you can see he is working on the school construction project, and was assigned to this public emergency relief project. Soon after this he got work at Douglas in Long Beach, after WWII began.
By the mid 20th Century the deinstitutionalization movement for the poor, and able bodied elderly, really picked up momentum. The campaign for the passage of the Social Security Act involved using the deplorable conditions in the poorhouses/ farms to win over public support for their cause. After the Social Security Act passed, and the elderly were getting what was basically outdoor relief, the need for poorhouses/farms diminished. Some remained as nursing homes, for those who were mentally and physically unable to care for themselves. That’s basically what the Washington County, Tennessee facility became.
The nursing home institution is a remnant of the poorhouse/farm. Care in most nursing homes is still substandard and patients are subject to neglect, even today. There is still a two tiered system for the elderly, with the wealthy getting high quality care in expensive facilities, and the lower middle class and poor often subject to inferior care
Another outgrowth of the poorhouse/ poor farm is the County Hospital, or Public Hospital, where the poor get their medical care. These hospitals also funneled the sick poor away from the poorhouse/poor farm where they would have previously been cared for.
Cook County Hospital, in Chicago, was the place where many of my relatives received care. Not always the best care, but certainly better than no care at all. Two of my great-grandfathers died in Cook County Hospital. Fred Mason died there of TB in 1917, and Frank Kappel died there is 1937.
After my grandmother Dorothy Kapple brought her children from Chicago to California they still used the County Hospital because they didn’t have health insurance. General Hospital in Los Angeles (the building can be seen in early General Hospital soap opera openings scenes) was another just barely better than nothing healthcare facility. My Uncle Tommy Kapple had his appendix removed there. He was placed in the hallway with many others because there were no rooms available. Rooms were filled with beds until they couldn’t roll more in. Everyone in a room shared one bathroom, and that could be 6 or more people. One nurse was responsible for large numbers of patients, also leading to substandard care.
The imperfect systems for helping the needy in the past were at least attempts to do something for the poor and helpless. During the Depression so many people were out of work and poor the stigma of poverty practically disappeared. Presently we are turning our backs on the poor. Many want to do less rather than more for them. The poor are again blamed for their situation in life, again seen as moral failures.
Our society now has a wider gap than ever between the rich and poor, and the middle class is shrinking. With automation replacing workers we need to find ways to provide support for those who cannot find work. Right now we have a system that provides unlimited support for the elderly. Those not yet old enough to receive these relief payments, who find themselves unemployed and without healthcare are left to fend for themselves. Unemployed adults and children are left to suffer for lack of enough food and healthcare. Homelessness is growing. Rents are unaffordable for many. Home prices are skyrocketing. Home builders are catering to the wealthy. With conditions as they are what will happen to future generations?
If we don’t change attitudes toward the poor, and strengthen and expand the social safety net, the US will officially descend into 3rd world status.