Poor Farms, poor houses or almshouses, are not a figment of your parent's imaginations. Poor Farms were the 19th century answer to what to do with the poor. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the phrase ‘poor farm' as , "A farm that houses, supports, and employs the poor at the public's expense." Before welfare as we know it today, something had to be done to take care of those living in poverty. Instead of sending people a check, people went to live in a public facility where they sometimes worked and were taken care of. According to The Poorhouse Lady, Linda Crannell, "Poorhouses were tax supported residential institutions to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves. People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor, an elected town official. If the needs were great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poor house instead of being given relief while they continued to live independently. Sometimes they were sent to the poor house even if they had not requested it." (excerpted from www.poorhousestory.com).
I came across the idea of poor farms when I took a research trip to Texas with a cousin. While there, we came across a history of the town that my ancestors are from, Bellville, Texas. It was while reading that book that we found out that our great-great-great grandmother ran the first poor farm in Austin County, Texas.
The following history of the Bellville Poor Farm might be of use in searching for the poor farm in your ancestor's locality. Prior to the existence of the poor farm, Austin County was paying individuals to oversee the care of the poor. Around 1880, the county decided to no longer have an overseer of the poor but instead pay the "paupers" monthly payments. Payments to individual paupers ranged from $3 to $10.00 each month. By 1891, the county decided that this system was a burden and once again decided to have someone contract with the county to take care of the poor. On February 14, 1891, the court declared that a poor house was to be established. Paupers would be supported at county expense and someone would take care of the paupers living in the poor house. My ancestor, Jane S Chatham and her son Edward agreed to "provide comfortable quarters" in two homes located on their property.
Now, a side note about Jane may be in order to understand why this job as the overseer of the poor would be important for her economic well being. In 1891, Jane was supporting approximately four of her nine children. Her husband, Moses Henry Chatham had been murdered in 1879 at the age of 38 years; leaving her eight children ranging in age from 17 years to a 2 year-old. She was about 8 months pregnant at the time of husband's murder. Moses had been a farmer and the family had about 147 acres to their name. As sons grew and moved on to having their own families, it may have been more difficult for Jane to make ends meet.
When the County contracted with Jane to provide for the poor, she was to "provide good and suitable food for the paupers, to look after and care for them and see they were nursed and properly provided for when sick, and treat them in a humane manner and do what was necessary to make them comfortable." Jane was paid $10.00 per month and .25 cents per day for the care of each inmate. Although I am unsure about how many inmates Jane cared for, as there are few records for many poor farms, the County was paying 33 impoverished individuals monthly stipends prior to entering into a contract with Jane Chatham.
Jane took care of the paupers, on her property for 10 months, when the county bought a parcel of land with buildings and designated that the new poor farm. The county continued to contract with Jane for the paupers care and told her to "take possession of the poor house and lands, keep the paupers, furnish them good substantial food, see that they were comfortable, and humanely treated." Expenses such as medical care, clothing, bedding, furnishings and funeral expenses were taken care of by the County. Jane took care of the poor until January 1894 when another person gave a winning bid for the contract to care for the paupers. Jane's work may have continued in some fashion, because in 1896, the County made payments to the Chatham's.
To get an idea of what the poor farm was like in 1900, check out the T.B. Hill family in the 1900 census for Austin County, Texas. Hill was overseeing the poor farm in 1900 and is listed on the census with his family and the poor farm "inmates." Note that to the left side of the names listed it says "Inmates-Poor Farm." To the extreme right, under the column "ownership of home" the census taker wrote a short note to indicate that the following names were in an institution and not a real farm. Eleven inmates are listed, none of which appear to be related to each other. Ages of these individuals range from 107! to 22 years of age. Seven of these individuals were white and the remaining four were black. In 1910 the census enumerates those living in the poor house but does not enumerate anyone working in the poor house. The 1910 census lists categories such as blind, deaf and dumb. This addition allows us to get a clearer picture of those living in the poor house, one of the people is listed as nearly blind and dumb and another completely blind. The enumerator also lists what occupations the paupers had held in the past. He ends his enumeration of the poor farm with "Here ends the enumeration of the institution known as the Austin County Poor Farm." The 1920 census enumerates the Presley Spence family. Presley's occupation is listed as almshouse manager. Eleven "inmates' are enumerated with the Spence family and a notation in the middle of the form says, "This enumerates the census of all in the Austin County Poor Farm." The last mention of the Austin County Poor Farm is in the local newspaper on June of 1928.
Researching the local poor farm for your ancestor's locality can help you better understand the locality in which they lived. Obviously, not all of us had ancestors that ran the poor farm but some of us may have had an elderly ancestor, who no longer had family to live with, living in a poor farm, which was an early version of our modern day convalescent home. In any case, research into your local poor farm can shed light on your research and is just another of the ways that we can put flesh on the bones of our ancestors.