up on the Poor Farm,” wasn’t just an expression or an idle phrase used to describe
a bad business venture a long time ago. Poor Farms, poor houses or almshouses,
are not a figment of your parent's, grandparent’s, or your great-grandparent’s
imaginations. They were a very real place, of which one did not want to be forced
to go to as a result of economic failures and hard times. |
Though the poor
farm is no longer a part of our modern society, the history of the institution
should not be overlooked. The history of the poor farm provides insight into the
development of the state’s public welfare system and its overall attitude toward
federal relief. The existence of the poor farm in Texas
is part of a larger national story that shows how nineteenth and twentieth century
America responded to the needs of its indigents for almost 100 years.
at The Anderson County Poor Farm |
Photo by Dana
|Poor Farms are defined
by the American Heritage Dictionary as, "A farm that houses, supports, and employs
the poor at the public's expense.” Poor Farms were the predecessor to modern day
welfare, and society’s dumping grounds for outcasts. Those who were insane, tubercular,
deaf, imbecile, criminal, aged, or poor were often placed together on county poor
farms. They were viewed as hopeless and useless.|
Prior to the Great Depression,
America’s poor were handled within a system that evolved from seventeenth century
English poor laws, and generally provided minimal relief and involved limited
government services. American colonist transplanted Elizabethan England methods
of care for the poor, and emphasized poverty as disgraceful and provided relief
strictly to avoid disorder.
Texas poor farms operated quietly, with little
to no interaction with the public. They were established to deal efficiently with
growing problem, but were never considered governmental institutions of importance.
Poor farm inhabitants were seen as destitute outcasts. Today the history of Texas’
poor farms is greatly overshadowed by the establishment of New Deal relief agencies
and the ultimate welfare revolution.
first mention of a county poor farm in Texas can
be found in within the 1869 constitution. Article XII, sections 26 reads, “Each
county in the State shall provide, in such a manner as may be prescribed by law,
a Manual Labor Poor House, for taking care of, managing, employing, and supplying
the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants; and under such regulations as
the legislature may direct, all persons committing petty offenses in the county
may be committed to such Manual Labor Poor House for correction and employment.”
By including that provision, the State of Texas harnessed county governments
with the direct responsibility for its poor. The provision also reinforced to
popular nationwide beliefs: 1) Care was to be based on the principle of “less
eligibility,” and 2) assistance was never intended to provide a life as comfortable
in comparison to that which non-recipients had.
In the Lone Star State,
Texans who survived the frontier experience viewed rugged individualism as a value
and applauded opportunity and success. Excessive dependence was not looked upon
kindly or with sympathy. Texas took great caution in order to avoid unwarranted
assistance. Texas, along with many other states, required poor farm inhabitants,
also known as paupers, to take an oath, and swear to their lack of goods and their
desperate need for assistance. Paupers would then forfeit the control of their
personal lives and basic rights as a citizen, including their right to vote, and
move to the poor farm. Such extreme requirements were intended to be a deterrent
for those seeking to live on the poor farm. Only the most desperate and those
who were the least prideful inhabited the poor farms.
Poor farms have
vanished due to federal relief programs, and their rapidly fading histories have
mostly been entirely forgotten. The Texas Poor Farm has become a mythical part
of our past, even though poor houses and farms have been around for hundreds of
years and some were operating into the 1960s. Little is known today of the state’s
early attempts at government intervention during times of individual and national
crisis, and even some of the most seasoned Texans do not recall their county’s
poor farm, or for that matter, realize poor farms existed outside of an expression.
County Poor Farm historical marker|
Photo by Dana
area residents are aware that Anderson County had a poor farm. Lifelong Anderson
County resident Carol Staples was unaware that such an institution ever existed
within the county.|
“It is amazing that I have lived here all of my life
and never knew that,” Staples said.
Other area residents contribute the
lack of knowledge surrounding the poor farm to generations before them that were
“Older generations just did not talk about things. Maybe
they thought they were protecting younger people, but things such as this were
not spoken of,” said another area resident.
Despite there being little
remains of the institution, the poor farm system was quite common in Texas.
According to a survey of county clerks and county historical commissions in 1987,
at least 65 of Texas’ 254 counties had some
type of county-operated poor farm.
1861, the 15-year-old Anderson County had encountered a problem with its poor.
That year, the Anderson County Court ordered petitioned the State Legislature
to pass an act which would authorize the County Commissioners to purchase a tract
of land in order to erect a poor house. The county specified that the tract of
land not exceed 200 acres within five miles of Palestine.
The Anderson County Court also requested that the court be authorized to levy
and collect an amount sufficient to pay for the land and necessary building, by
way of taxation.
With the War Between the States approaching, the State
Legislature and Anderson County Court put the poor house on the back burner until
the 1870s, also known as the Reconstruction Days. In 1872, the court again petitioned
the State Legislature for authorization to construct a poor house.
1872, Anderson County purchased property for an intended poor house, however,
by March of that year Presiding Justice W.T. Smith was ordered to rent a building
and furnish the paupers with food, clothing and fuel. According to Anderson County
Commissioners Court Minute Books, money was to be withdrawn from any fund other
than those set aside for road repairs or jury service. Smith was also instructed
to erect a building on any vacant lot in Palestine
owned by the county.
That same year, R. Dowling was named as Steward over
the Anderson County Poor Farm, however, according to the Texas Historical Commission,
no records or deeds can be located which detail the arrangement made between Dowling
and the county. There are, however, multiple records concerning the care of several
indigents. According to the Anderson County Historical Commission, there are numerous
records regarding the care of an “indigent widow,” an “indigent person,” Paupers,”
and an “indigent blind person.” Other records used only the term, “indigent.”
In Anderson County, it appears to have been customary for one person to
care for each individual and then present the county with a bill for the rendered
care each quarter in order to receive payment. Amounts for care rendered reportedly
varied at substantial rates. For instance, one person might receive $100 for the
care of a pauper, while another might receive $25. Due to such variations, Anderson
County eventually insisted that paupers and those representing them must appear
before the court and be verified, otherwise no appropriations would be allowed.
County Poor Farm building|
Photo by Dana
County Poor Farm historical marker|
Photo by Dana
little more than a decade later, in 1884, Anderson County finally obtained its
poor farm. The county paid $2,700 for approximately 462 acres, located south of
Palestine on Sycamore Road.
This acreage was part of 800 acres originally patented to Stephen Crist on May
21, 1835. The Anderson County Auditor funded $1, 000 for the county poor farm.|
1, 1887, R.J. Wallace was named manager of the Anderson County Poor Farm. Anderson
County hired its poor farm superintendent in a different manner than other poor
farms. The agreement between the Anderson County Poor Farm and the superintendent
allowed Wallace to rent the poor farm for $275 per year. His contract specified
his duties in regards of caring for the paupers, and allowed for food and clothing
at $6.50 per month. The contract also allowed for feeding convicts and farm hands
at .20 cents per day as well. The county also provided clothing, medicine, and
doctors visits for poor farm tenants. The county made a stipulation which ensured
no funds would be provided for babies nursing their own mother, which indicated
it was not inhabited by only elderly tenants. Selecting and hiring a superintendent
to manage a poor farm was an important process. County commissioner courts selected
superintendents, usually for a two year term, who lived on and managed the poor
farm. Superintendents were paid a salary, which averaged approximately $300 per
year. Superintendents were given additional money for farm expenses, and in order
to provide paupers with clothing, medicine, and doctor visits when needed.
The Poor Farm superintendent was also responsible for hiring additional help,
which included guards, managers, and laborers. Other duties included organizing
the planting of the crops, overseeing all property management, maintaining order,
ensuring that poor farm tenants were not grossly mistreated, and keeping written
records. A superintendent’s wife was also expected to perform certain duties,
at no additional pay. Washing, cooking, and sewing for the poor farm tenants were
part of her duties.
farm populations varied, but averaged 15 to 20 indigents per farm according to
records. Parker County Poor Farm records are consistent with the average, while
Colorado County Poor Farm records of 1912 reported 27 indigents residing on its
farm. The Anderson County Poor Farm reported approximately 100 burials over the
course of roughly 50 years.
By the 1930s, Texas’ poor farms began to be
replaced and farm populations dropped, but did not disappear. Collin County Poor
Farm maintained a handful of indigents into the 1940s. Cass County Poor Farm closed
its doors in 1956 when the superintendent died with one pauper left, and Wise
County Poor Farm remained open until 1962, with two paupers remaining.
to lack of sufficient records, there are almost no specific references to be found
which describe the original buildings on the property. Interviews conducted in
the mid 1980s offer brief descriptions of the site, as told by J.B. Crutcher and
Stanley Walton, both of which were previous owners of the poor farm. |
the time of the interviews conducted with Crutcher and Walton a collapsing potato
barn was still on the property. The hand-hewn notched log construction, with whitened
clay used as mortar had seen better days. High winds and extreme weather had taken
their toll on the primitive 18x20 building. Inside the barn were a double tier
of bins used to store potatoes after they were harvested.
used to house the county’s indigents was a long curving row of rooms. The building
was covered with native rocks. According to Anderson County Historical Commission
records, there were somewhere between 10 and 14 rooms. A v-shaped lounging rooms
was built on to one end of the building, complete with a native rock chimney.
Ruins of the structure existed until the property was purchased by Crutcher, who
demolished the remains of the structure due to dangerous conditions.
1882, a jail was constructed on the property. The jail, which is still standing
today, was constructed as an adjoining building with the structure used to house
the indigents. According county records, convicts that were housed at the poor
farm worked on road crews and on the farm to “work off” their sentences.
Today, the native rock exterior is separating from the reinforced concrete walls
of the old jail. One end of the 66’x13 ½ ‘ structure was considered “minimum security.”
The two minimum security rooms were adjoined with the housing structure. In the
corner of each room is a slightly raised area and a drain. The drains are believed
to be for showers that were installed later. Also, each minimum security room
has a flue, which is presumed to have been for cooking and/or heating. Both rooms
of the minimum security area have barred windows, and massive metal doors.
|On the inside of each
metal door a set of rules was painted, which read: |
At the sound of the
bell make beds and sweep out.
Scrub commodes and lavatory.
Do not wash
clothes under shower.
Flush commode immediately after use.
Take a shower
each Wednesday night.
Help keep this place clean, and this means YOU.
rules are thought to have been revised as time progressed.
end of the jail was considered maximum security. On this end two cells containing
two metal bunk beds each, one window a piece, and one heavy metal lattice style
doors. The heavy doors opened into a small area that was separated from the outside
by another heavy metal door. The locking system for the maximum security area
was intricate and individual. There were places to lock each individual cell,
the holding area, the outside door, and there was also a master switch that could
be locked. Local legend suggests the heat must have been almost unbearable, and
was likely built in such a fashion as a deterrent for bad behavior.
| Farming conducted
on poor farms was primarily done in order to provide tenants with food. Counties
generally did not sell crops for profit, however, an occasional cash for cotton
venture did take place. Each poor farm grew what was best suited for its land.
Anderson County grew cotton, potatoes and corn. Hogs were also raised on the Anderson
County Poor Farm, and there was also a canning operation. |
75 to 100 pauper graves are also an area of interest on the old Anderson County
Poor Farm. The last marker for the many graves was a lone metal funeral marker
close to the southern edge of the property. Since Anderson County records only
reflect the cost of pauper burials, coffins, burial clothes, and grave digging
pauper names details are likely lost forever.
Anderson, Parker, and Cass
counties are unique for their written documentation. The Texas Historical Commission
surveyed county historical commissions for their poor farm information and received
fewer than five responses from 252 different commissions.
final chapter of the Anderson County Poor Farm began in 1957. The Anderson County
Commissioners Court minutes reported a final lease through December 1958. In 1960
the poor farm went up for sale. Jewett Kiser purchased the poor farm at an auction,
and then sold it to Stanley Walton in 1962. Walton sold the poor farm a month
later to J.B. Crutcher.
The poor farm has remains in the Crutcher family
today. Family members have fond memories of time spent playing on the property
“I spent a lot of time playing in that old jail. We would
play cowboys and bad guys,” said family member Mike Bishop.
also has fond memories of growing up on the farm, and continues to make memories
with his grandchildren.
“It has a lot of history, but we use it more for
storage than anything these days. It has also become more of a playhouse for grandchildren,”
Crutcher also said his family used the old jail as a storm
shelter for many years.
“My mom and dad used to head to the old jail when
storm clouds blew in. It was a fortress, so you didn’t have tow worry about it
blowing away,” Crutcher said.
Crutcher is in the process of planting coastal
Bermuda grass on the property, as it is still a functioning farm today.
has marched on and the winds of change have blown swiftly through Anderson County.
The constantly fading history of the Texas’ poor farm system is inching closer
to non-existence and will soon live only in the memories of those who choose to
recall the early efforts to care for the poor.
published in the Palestine Herald Press
The Pines With Dana Goolsby"
May 1, 2011 Column
Topics: Tales from Texas' Past | East
Texas | Texas
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