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
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.
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.”