The Tazewell County Poor Farm

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in April 2015 before the launch of this weblog.

The Tazewell County Poor Farm

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously, this column told of the means by which the poor of Tazewell County were provided for during the early years of the county’s history, before the establishment of private charitable organizations and public social welfare programs. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” devoted several pages to the subject of how Tazewell’s pioneers cared for their “paupers.”

The next chapter in that story may be read in Ben C. Allensworth’s updated 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 739-742, where we find an extended account of the Tazewell County Poor Farm, which was located at the site of the Tazewell County Emergency Managament Agency, the Tazewell County Health Department and other county facilities off Illinois Route 9 near Tremont.

This is how Allensworth tells of how the Poor Farm came to be established:

“Prior to the purchase of the present Poor Farm site and the erection of the buildings thereon, the paupers of the county had been ‘let out’ for their ‘keep’ to the lowest bidder in the respective townships where they resided. It occurred to the authorities that the expense was greater than it would be should the county itself provide a home for its unfortunate poor. The feeling at this time was expressed by a resolution offered at the January term of the Board of Supervisors, in 1864, when Mr. Wenger presented the following preamble which was received, read and adopted:

“‘Whereas, the present system of supporting the poor of the townships of Tazewell county is very expensive and inefficient, and only tends to make pauperism fashionable; therefore,

“‘Resolved, that the chairman of the Board of Supervisors appoint a committee of three, to take into consideration the subject of purchasing a Poor Farm for the use of the county poor, and report to the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors.’

“Whereupon Messrs. Elias Wenger, W. S. Mans and Dillon were appointed said committee.

An initial proposal in August 1866 to purchase Lemuel Allen’s farm for $7,000 for use as a Poor Farm was rejected by the Tazewell County Board. After further investigation and deliberation, by May 1871 the county had agreed to the purchase of the 211 ½-acre farm of James Smith in Elm Grove Township and to prepare it for occupancy for a total price of $4,550.10. Allensworth writes, “There were at that time nineteen paupers in the home in the care of Mrs. E. Hall, who had been engaged as matron, with Dr. Bumstead as physician. . . . Not all the paupers in the County were lodged at the Poor Farm. In 1872, at a May meeting of the Board, it was shown that since the building of the Poor House, the sum of $1,624.07 had been paid out by the county on account of the poor. For the same time — that is, from the August term, 1871, to the February term, 1872 — the county had paid the current expenses of the Poor Farm $5,997.31, and had sold property from the farm to the amount of $1,097.85. The net expense of the Poor Farm was, therefore, $4,899.46, from which cost must be deducted the improvements made, making a net cost of the paupers at the Poor Farm $2,344.56.”

The Poor Farm was operated by a superintendent appointed by the County Board, which originally would let out the superintendency to the lowest bidder. The farm’s first superintendent, appointed in March 1873, was J. B. Cooper of Washington. A few months later, Allensworth writes, the county committee on the Poor Farm reported to the County Board that “they had visited the Poor Farm and, by observation and conversation with the paupers, they found the inmates without exception as happy and well contented as any class of like persons could be expected to be.”

From Allensworth’s account can be gleaned a hint of the social stigma that was attached to poverty, as he writes, “The education of the minor inmates of the Poor Farm has been constantly a source of agitation since the beginning of the institution. Some of the resident patrons of the school district object to the presence of the pauper children in the public school, and it became a matter of some importance to the school district on the ground that the school quite frequently became overcrowded; and it was held by some that a sufficient amount was not paid as tuition for these children, as they were not recognized as being legally entitled to the privileges of the school.” At the time of publication of Allensworth’s 1905 history, the issue of whether or not poor children should be permitted to receive an education in Tazewell County’s public schools, and how the community should pay for their education, was still unresolved.

By the 1890s, the facilities at the Poor Farm were no longer adequate, and the County Board moved to finance the construction of new buildings. To find out how to improve the Poor Farm, a county committee toured poor farms in other Illinois counties that had more modern facilities. The county opted for a plan modeled closely on Ford County’s Poor Farm, and the new buildings were completed on May 18, 1900, at a total cost of $18,377.74.

Shown in this 1954 aerial photograph from “This is Tazewell County, Illinois,” is the former Tazewell County Poor Farm. The site, now the location of the Tazewell County Health Department and Emergency Management Agency, was then the location of a nursing home.

Allensworth concluded his account with a list of the Poor Farm’s superintendents. “The present Superintendent of the Farm is J. l. Hollingsworth, who has had charge since February, 1898. The first Superintendent was Sarah C. Hall, who was succeeded by a Mr. Brown, who had charge from March, 1873, when J. B. Cooper was elected Superintendent, and remained until March, 1882. Following him was Jefferson Ireland, who was succeeded in 1885 by Milton Kinsey. Mr. Kinsey died suddenly, after nearly two years at the farm, when S. H. Puterbaugh, of Mackinaw, was elected Superintendent, and held the position until February 13, 1898. This institution has, in the main, been well managed from the very start, and owes its prosperity almost altogether to Superintendents Cooper, Puterbaugh and Hollingsworth.”

Eventually changes in how society provides for the underprivileged led to the closing of the Poor Farm, which was turned into a children’s home and a later a nursing home before the old structures were replaced with the current county facilities. The Poor Farm cemetery still exists, however, in a grove about a half-mile behind the TCEMA and TCHD facilities, where one may find a monument erected in 1910 “In Memory of the Unfortunate of Tazewell County.”

This photograph of the Tazewell County Poor Farm Cemetery was taken by Linda T. and uploaded to the Find-A-Grave website.

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Caring for paupers in pioneer times

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in September 2014 before the launch of this weblog.

Caring for paupers in pioneer times

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Modern society has numerous private charitable organizations and public social welfare programs that provide assistance to those who are poor or in need. However, in the early years of Tazewell County, the poor – usually called by the older term, “paupers” – had few options. Those who were unable to work, and whose relatives could not or would not help them, could have their living expenses defrayed at public expense.

Often this form of assistance involved the county reimbursing private individuals for their expenses in providing for a pauper. This is what was done in the case of an elderly pauper of Tazewell County named Nicholas Miller, as explained on pages 246 and 253-254 of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

Chapman writes, “In June, 1832, John Summers was allowed $78 for keeping old man Miller. In the June previous Summers came into Court and explained that a certain Nicholas Miller, a pauper, was living at county expense while he had a well-to-do son named Joseph, who should, both in equity of the law and from filial affection, support his father. Thereupon the Sheriff was posted after the undutiful Joseph. It appears, however, that Joseph was not found at the time, nor until 1834, if we rely upon the records for information, for no mention is made of him until that time. He then appears and gives as his reason for not supporting his parent, ‘inability to do so.’”

This episode illustrates the public welfare system then in use. The expectation was that a pauper’s family would provide for him. If they couldn’t do so, or refused to do so, then the county would provide money – but it would not be given directly to the poor person, but rather to whoever was “keeping” the pauper, and his keeper would have to petition the county court for the reimbursement.

Today, of course, $78 would not be much money, but the sum that Tazewell County paid to Summers for his year’s worth of expenses was not a small sum for the year 1832. To get a better idea of how much money that was, Tazewell County’s entire budget for 1832 consisted of only $689.50 in expenses and $729.24 in revenue.

In fact, money for paupers living at the county’s expense made up a not insignificant portion of Tazewell County’s expenditures in 1832. That is probably why the county court that year tried to rid the county of the expense of caring for its paupers Sarah Stout and Nicholas Miller – by attempting to sell them into servitude. According to Chapman, during the same court session when Miller’s son Joseph claimed an inability to provide for his father, Stout’s relatives Hosea Stout and Benjamin Jones also said they couldn’t provide for her.

“Thus,” Chapman writes, “the veteran and venerable paupers were thrown back upon the county, whereupon the Court ordered ‘Nathan Dillon and Wm. McClure to dispose of said paupers at public sale or private contract.’ It seems that they were not regarded as valuable paupers and not one bid was made for them. But all through the records for years are bills allowed for their maintenance. In 1835 the Court, being worried with the many claims for bills for supporting Miller, lifted up its voice and peremptorily commanded the Sheriff to sell him. The poor old man had outlived his years of usefulness and even became a burden to the indulgent county.”

Miller would remain on the county’s pauper rolls for the next decade. This is how Chapman tells the story of “The Last of Poor Old Nic. Miller”:

“During the years 1840 and ’41 we find a remarkable increase in the number and amount of bills allowed for keeping paupers. Throughout the record during these two years are bills upon bills of this nature. The increase seemed surprising to the Commissioners themselves, and they made particular inquiry into the status of affairs before granting the bills. It seems the county was imposed upon in several instances by the unnatural actions of those who preferred that their relations should be kept at the county’s expense rather than their own. One Jane Morrill it was found had a husband living able to provide for her.

“Poor old Nic. Miller, the ancient pauper, was still on hand, but his bill these years was curtailed to nearly one-half. Year after year the customary bill for his support was handed in, until through familiarity the name of ‘Nic. Miller’ became a by-word. We doubt not that when the old veteran died, and no more bills for his care were presented to the Court, the generous, kind-hearted Commissioners dropped a tear, felt a pang of sorrow steal through the tender cords of their heart, and softly muttered, ‘Poor old Nic. Miller is no more!’ Death, the poor man’s best friend, called the old gentleman away during the year 1845. The poor old man who had been refused bread by his own son, and who had been buffeted about by many adverse winds, now returned to trouble them no more.”

#nathan-dillon, #nicholas-miller, #paupers, #tazewell-county-history