On the edge of town, there was a place where the destitute lived and died.
Gone and mostly forgotten now, the county farm, more commonly known as poor farm or almshouse, was a place that supported those who could not support themselves.
The farms came after an earlier system mandated in 1819 by the General Assembly that farmed out care of the poor to private citizens, according to information compiled by the Illinois Regional Archives Depository System, Illinois State University.
“In 1839, this system was reauthorized. County commissioners courts were also authorized to establish county poorhouses, at their own discretion, to replace the farm-out system; to hire keepers of the poor, and to levy a property tax for poorhouse support,” according to IRAD.
Most Illinois counties established farms, Illinois State Historical Society executive director William Furry said.
“They took in the infirm, destitute, orphaned, vagrant,” he said. “The residents, if able, had to work on the farm for their room and board.”
Joanne Cross, 82, of Murphysboro, remembers the Jackson County poor farm, located near the intersection of what is now Chautauqua and Tower Roads.
Cross lived in Alton as a child but spent many summers on her family’s farm in Carbondale, just down the road from the county farm.
“I remember going to visit the nice folks there. There was a big porch across the front and the ladies would be sitting on it, shelling peas or darning socks. The men would be working in the gardens or throwing washers,” she said.
Through a child’s eye, she said, the farm seemed idyllic, with big shade trees and happy people.
“It wasn’t until later I learned how difficult it must have been for the people who lived there,” she said. “Back then, people were as independent as a hog on ice. You did not want to be a burden to anybody or be beholden to anybody. It was a prideful thing: no one wanted to admit things were so dire you couldn’t take care of yourself.”
Indeed, according to the 1911 report of the Illinois State Charities Commission: “The deserving poor are loathe to apply for alms. They conceal their plight. Mortification accompanies honest misfortune. To be unable in the stress of economic severity to sustain one’s self and family intensifies shame. The stings of poverty wound the heart long before they are felt in the flesh.”
Adding insult to injury, names of the poor receiving county relief were also published in some communities’ newspapers, but Perry County Historical Society President Bill Timpner said the farms provided a safety net for those suffering through desperate times.
“There weren’t the kinds of programs then that there are now. If there was no work or no family to support you, you went to the poor house,” he said.
The Perry County farm was on Illinois 127 just south of Pinckneyville.
“When you first went there, you had to go to the bug house. You had to strip down and boil your clothes before you could go to the main house,” he said.
No life of luxury
Despite that, many poor farms had bed bugs and unsanitary conditions, according to the state charities report.
“The building is old and many of the doors and windows have become so loose that the house is unbearably cold in winter,” a 1911 inspection of the Perry County farm reported. “The bedrooms are bare and unfurnished, save for the (residents’) old trunks, a few old tables, and some straight backed chairs. The blankets are washed twice a year. The plaster and paper are in bad shape and make it almost impossible to fight the rats and bed bugs successfully.”
Kirby Browning grew up near the Franklin County poor farm on the southern edge of Benton.
Most of the people living on the farm were older, Browning said, although children lived there during the farm’s later years.
“Many of these people were older, some with mental or physical disabilities This was before Social Security or Medicare. There was nothing to help people who needed the help,” he said.
The farms also had cemeteries where the poor were buried, usually in unmarked graves.
“We would play in the yard at our school and if a ball went into the cemetery, it was almost impossible to find. It was so grown up with sprouts and briars,” he said.
The Franklin County cemetery is now maintained and two markers placed in memory of the more than 300 people buried there.
The Franklin County poor farm closed in the late 1940s, its building later torn down, Browning said.
In 1949, the Public Assistance Code made relief of the poor a function of county welfare departments and county homes were specifically forbidden from taking in poor but physically healthy people, according to IRAD information.
All of the county homes remaining in the state were decommissioned in 1967.
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