The Poor Farm
I recently visited what was once known at Gunnison, Colorado’s, “Poor House.” This ancient house is located on north 12th Street, and has now been turned into an apartment building. It still retains many of the characteristics of a much older home. A glance inside the front door reveals a worn staircase and several doors opening off a large hallway. Something about this sad old house intrigued me and I began looking into its history and the history of poor houses and poor farms in general. A little research turned up some interesting facts.
The poor farms and poor houses of yesteryear were not places where anyone wanted to end up, that’s a certainty. They were common on Colorado’s Western Slope from the late 1800s up until the Social Security Act took place in 1935. After that time, most of them gradually disappeared. Poor houses and poor farms were inhabited by persons of all ages and descriptions, who were called “paupers.” A pauper, according to the dictionary, is a “very poor person.”
Larger cities housed these unfortunate paupers in places called almshouses, while more rural areas had county poor farms. Poor farms were institutions that were placed on land set aside by counties for the care of paupers ” a kind of warehousing of the destitute who often had little voice in the process. While the poor farm was often a county-run entity, towns sometimes provided a residence for paupers called a poor house, which was also supported by public expense.
There were various processes involved in being declared a pauper, but the usual one was that a destitute person appeared before a regular session of the County Court, where their eligibility was determined and they were declared a pauper and then put in the care of the county. This unfortunate circumstance was, at the time, widely assumed to be a dishonorable one and it was often thought that being declared a pauper was to have a lack of industriousness or ambition.
In the early days, generally speaking, to be eligible for residence at a poor farm, a person could own little more than $10 in worldly goods. Many of the people who met this criteria were elderly and had no family to take care of them and no income of their own.
The county poor farm was sometimes used as a holding place for prisoners who had received light sentences. These prisoners were sent to the poor farm to work out their sentences, often staying only a few weeks. Others inhabiting poor farms were vagrants, drunks, the sick ” many with consumption (tuberculosis), the elderly, women pregnant out of wedlock, abandoned children, the developmentally disabled, and the mentally ill. The poor farm could therefore be a combination working farm, hospital, nursing home, and orphanage.
Although for most of a poor farm’s inhabitants, it was a place of disgrace and a last resort, there were some who more or less willingly spent years there, and in fact, made a career out of being a pauper.
Poor farms functioned with strict rules. All who were able were required to do some type of labor as deemed fitting by a supervisor. If people were healthy enough, they were expected to provide labor, both in fields and in the house itself, providing housekeeping and cooking help as well as caring for other residents. In the summer, common jobs were planting, hoeing, and harvesting a large vegetable garden. Men cared for the farm’s animals: cattle, horses, chickens and pigs.
It was expected that paupers would be treated humanely. They were not prisoners of the farm, but were also not allowed to leave the premises without permission. Sometimes they were visited by townspeople who might donate food or used items or clothing to the farm, or provide such services as haircuts, or at Christmas time, bring gifts.
A Superintendent was hired by the county to oversee the operation of the poor farm, and the county commissioners also oversaw the operations by frequently visiting and inspecting the farm.
If a poor farm was not available in the community, another method of caring for the poor was for the county to deem one a pauper, and then he or she would be put on the “judge’s payroll” and paid a certain amount each month for living expenses. These payments ranged in the $3 to $8 range. One might actually have received better care in the poor farm than from trying to live on such a small amount.
Another way a pauper could be cared for was by a monthly support payment being paid directly to another person for supporting, feeding, clothing, and even burying the pauper. The person who cared for the pauper was paid a certain amount on a monthly basis.
During the years of the Depression, other methods were employed to help large members of the destitute. Soup kitchens and bread lines served those in urban areas. Many of the people found in bread lines were former farmers who left agricultural areas and moved to cities and towns, hoping to find work. Also, at this time, government programs employed many who were considered to be “able-bodied”. The less fortunate went to the poor farm.
Since residents of poor farms were often elderly and sick, and there was little medical care, deaths there were quite common. Having been provided the necessities of life at the poor farm, the county, when necessary, provided for burials. Paupers were usually buried in unmarked graves in cheap coffins. Little notice, other than a mention in the county records, was made of their passing.
In the 1930s things finally began to change. In 1932, Congress authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to make loans to states and cities for relief purposes. Then, in 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Act also made grants to local governments for unemployment relief. In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed, allowing regular checks to be mailed to the elderly. After the 1930s poor houses and poor farms gradually became obsolete. Institutions were built for the mentally ill, children were cared for in orphanages, and hospitals cared for the sick.
Perhaps today’s homeless shelters are the closest things now resembling the poor houses and poor farms of yesterday. There are few visible remains of these old institutions in the 21st Century. In fact, there are few people left who have any memory of them. One can only imagine now the dreariness and despair of living in the poor house.
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