Friday, July 08, 2011

Over the hill to the poor house

The Lucas County Home many of us remember was built in 1904.

A sign to identify the 40 or more people buried in the old Lucas County Home cemetery is a project the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission has been talking about this summer --- to the point of visiting with others who might be involved, including the Lucas County Genealogical Society. Three of us visited with the county supervisors, ultimately responsible for the cemetery, and obtained their permission Tuesday. Now we’ll need to visit with the Pioneer Cemetery Commission, responsible for its maintenance.

Lucas County hasn’t had a county home since 1986, when the big brick structure just northwest of Chariton was torn down after remaining residents had been placed elsewhere. The giant Hy-Vee frozen foods warehouse/distribution center now occupies and sprawls beyond the site of the farmstead.

All that remains of an institution that had operated in the same location since 1869 is the tiny cemetery right up against Burlington Northern & Santa Fe right-of-way northwest of the Hy-Vee complex.

The genealogical society found the names of 38 or 39 people buried there between the 1870s and the 1920s, using county home records, when preparing its 1981 “Lucas County, Iowa, Cemetery Records” for publication. Only four graves are marked, however:

John Burns, 1863-1920

John Reiner, 1831-1918

John Miller, 1848-1917

Lucy Mathews, 1845-1914

This is not going to be an extravagant project. The sign, ordered from Iowa Prison Industries, would be simple and relatively inexpensive. But it seems like a useful and respectful thing to do.


It’s been a long time since I’d thought about the county home, always noted as a kid when driving out of town on what then was a gravel road to the northwest. By that time it had for the most part ceased being a home for the poor and was more of a county-run nursing home-custodial living center for people with mild to moderate mental or physical challenges or mental illness who could not live independently or with family. Nearly every Iowa county had one, and some still do.

As social welfare programs expanded and more potential Lucas County Home residents were placed instead in new custodial living centers or nursing homes --- and as some were given the support they needed to live independently --- resident numbers declined. It became impractical to operate a large center for a few people and the home was closed.

When the “poor farm” was acquired in 1869, however, it offered a refuge, in most cases temporary, primarily for those who had run out of luck --- and of money --- and needed public help to survive. There were no social safety nets in those days, other than family --- and the county poor fund.

The best account of the first dozen years of the county farm, written by Dan Baker, is found in the 1881 “History of Lucas County, Iowa” (Des Moines: State Historical Company).

According to Baker, Lucas County supervisors purchased the 200-acre poor farm property from William and America Skidmore on Oct. 18, 1869, for $10,500 --- money on hand in the poor fund approved for expenditure, 804-385, during a special election. The house already on the farm was expanded and a new barn built to prepare it for its new purpose.

Baker used county home records to prepare the following summary of its operations through 1880: “From this record there appears to have been one hundred and fifty paupers received in the poor-house during the above period of eleven years, of which number eight were born there. During the same period one hundred and fifty appear to have been discharged, including thirteen by death. The expenditures of the institution during its past eleven years of practical existence were about $10,974.35, including the cost of the barn and addition to the house. There may have been expenditures for stock not included in the total. The receipts from the farm during the same period were $6,122.84; thus leaving a deficiency of about $4,851. 51, which fell upon the county to provide for from time to time during those years. In addition to the expenditures of the years 1878, 1879 and 1880, already given, there were, in each of these years, not less than three hundred tramps kept over night and given one or two meals each.”

Poor farms were expected at that time to be as self-sufficient as possible with residents providing the labor under the direction of a superintendent and matron, who were county employees. Meat, dairy products and eggs came from farm livestock; produce, fresh and canned, from poor farm gardens.

A stay at the poor house was expected to be temporary except in cases of the very old or infirm with no family to support them or those with debilitating mental or physical challenges. Early records show a substantial number of widows with young children and unmarried mothers (perhaps rejected by their families) who gave birth there. These mothers sometimes gave up custody of their children who then were then placed elsewhere by the county. This was not required, but apparently seemed at times the only way for a woman to get back on her feet financially.

The county home also offered refuge to people without family or with limited funds who needed a place --- before hospitals and nursing homes --- to recover from accidents or serious illnesses. George W. Alexander, a popular Chariton attorney and mayor but also a notable drunk, spent time recuperating at the county home as acute alcoholism began to take its toll on his health.

If someone died at the home, he or she was buried at county expense --- in the county home cemetery if no other burial place was available.

By the turn of the 20th century, the old house on the poor farm was no longer adequate and the large brick structure many of us remember was built during 1904 at a cost of $17,200.

The county home, or poor farm, does not seem to have been an unpleasant place --- although a social stigma was attached to residence there. County homes have for the most part passed into history, but the stigma attached to public assistance remains among many --- perhaps more of a problem for the beholder than the beheld.

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