Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Go West Young Man—And You Could Land in the Poor House

Growing up I thought one of the worst things that could happen was to end up in the poor house.  If we left the lights on, outgrew our shoes too quickly, or took more than our share of food we'd hear, "Do you want to send us to the poor house?"
It wasn't until I was an adult that it occurred to me that one, I never saw a poor house and two, I’d never met anyone who lived there.  As it turns out there really were poor houses throughout the country, including the Old West.
Though poor houses had been in the east since early colonial times, their numbers spread to the west following the westward expansion. Families separated by great distances could no longer turn to each other for help. The Civil War also created a great deal of poverty.  Men often returned home to find farms gone or taxes in arrears.
What we call welfare today was once called "outdoor relief."  Indigent people would have to go to an elected town official called an Overseer of the Poor or Poor Master and plead their case.

I Do So Solemnly Swear…
Before a person could move to an almshouse they had to take the pauper oath swearing they had no more than ten dollars to their names.  Poverty was considered a sign of moral weakness so feelings of guilt and shame prevailed. 
Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org
Being poor wasn't just an embarrassment it was also treated as a crime, and many of these farms also served as prisons. 
No such thing as Social Security existed at the time so, as you might expect, many paupers were elderly people with physical problems.  The greatest number of residents were widows and mothers with small children. Some famous people lived in poor houses including Annie Oakley who was sent to one at age 9.
Even back then, fraud flourished and people claimed to be paupers who weren't.  One farm superintendent accidentally found a thousand dollars hidden in an inmate's belongings.  The man preferred living off charity than his own resources.
Paupers were expected to work and many of these farms grew cotton and other crops.  Some poor houses were run with compassion, but not all.
A "Poor Farm" Romance
One story I came across involved a poor farm in Cass County, Texas. An elderly man became a resident after losing all his money. There he met a woman he had once been engaged to when he was a young man of twenty-one and she was eighteen.  The families had been against the wedding and the two were forced to break off their betrothal. The elderly couple picked up where they left off and decided to marry.  He asked the county supervisors to let them continue to live on the farm after they wed, but was denied permission.  Two people were not allowed to marry after taking the pauper's oath.

Soon after, the woman went to live with her daughter. She requested that a white rose be placed on her shroud to symbolize a love that had lasted through a lifetime, and hoped they would meet again in heaven.
Thank goodness Social Security put an end to poor houses, which brings up the question:  What do parents threaten their kids with today? 

Ida May Fuller was issued the 1st Social Security
check 77 yrs ago on January 31, 1940.
 She received $22.34.

Who could resist Christmas in a Cowboy's Arms?




  1. Informative post about poor homes. There was a poor farm, at one time, in an area close to me. It's been used for many things since closing as the poor farm with endless repairs being required with each new owner.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      If only those walls could talk, I bet we'd hear some sad stories. Thank you for sharing.

  2. LOL, "what do parents threaten their kids with now?" The question is funny, but immediately sobering to me because so many families are one paycheck away from financial distress nowadays. I am not much better off but am finally paying attention to this fact now that my earning days are dwindling. I suppose our homeless shelters are taking the place of poor houses these days. Very sad.

    1. Hi Connie, I hadn't quite thought of it that way, but you could be right about homeless shelters taking the place of poor houses.

  3. this was an eye opener. thanks for the post

  4. Maybe the fear of the poor house was more about being under someone else's "control" ... not having a say in meals, etc. That would be hard to get used to and I'm sure it is the same today with our elders who have to submit to the care of others. Thanks for a post that reminded me to BE THANKFUL.

    1. Hi Stephanie, yes, it would be hard to be under someone else's control. But people in the past also thought it shameful to receive charity. I don't think anyone feels shame anymore.

      Thank you for sharing and reminding us all to be thankful!

  5. Margaret, when I was growing up I remember my parents talking about the poor house and it was actually named the County Farm. It was several miles outside of our largest town, the county seat, and people were allowed to live there who had no other place to go. I always imagined older people living there but it was a working farm so there were probably young people also. Yes, I was often asked if I wanted to live at the poor house and as sad as it probably was, can you imagine how some children live today? I recently read of a project in a nearby town to make sure that all children had a bed to sleep in because many are sleeping on the floor. This broke my heart!
    Thanks for an interesting post!