Friday, March 4, 2022

Poor Houses--A Part of Local History That Shouldn't be Ignored.


The Walworth County Poor Farm and Insane Asylum as it appeared. It was located on the outskirts of Elkhorn, Wisconsin

Sometimes someone might say if they don’t have a turnaround in their financial situation they’ll end up in the “poor house.” I’ve even said similar things in jest. Never have I truly expected to be put in a government-run institution called the poor house. I never gave it much thought that there actually institutions called poor houses (sometimes called poor farms) and indigent people who had no means of employment and family to support themselves actually ended up there. Most counties in the U.S. had such a facility to help the elderly and perpetually unemployed who had no one to care for them.

An artist's rendering of the building 

I recently came across an article from At the Lake Magazine’s archive about the history of the Walworth County Poor Farm and Insane Asylum. The building, which was torn down some years ago, stood for many years, serving in many capacities. According to At the Lake Magazine, author Lisa Schmelz, the poor house served as home for many elderly and down-in-luck people who were called inmates by the facility. Those who were able worked on the farm associated with the home. Others were assigned jobs within the building as what we might have called janitor duties in subsequent years. 

The facility also served at a home for unwed mothers. Young unmarried pregnant women without family support usually found their way to the home. 

The cemetery. The fence encircles the grassy meadow. 
The only grave marker the plaque containing the names 
of all who are buried there.

As unpleasant as it may sound, the home was hailed as one of the best in the
state. At least the residents had a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. And if you lived out the rest of your life there, your remains were buried on the property. The nondescript cemetery sits behind a school, mostly unnoticed. A few years ago, caring people took great pains to section off the burial site and erect a large plaque that bears the names of all who are buried there. There are no plots or gravestones. Only God knows exactly the locations of the graves and the interred's backstories. I hope to visit the graveyard when the weather breaks and see it for myself. 

Are you aware of poor houses or farms in the area where you grew up or live? 

At The Lake Magazine, The Last House on the Block; Lisa Schmelz; February 20, 2014.

Pamela Meyers writes historical romance novels with a women's fiction-like content. All are set in her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She lives in northeast Illinois with her two rescue cats and is active in her church women's ministry.


  1. Thanks for your post this morning, albeit on a sad and slightly discouraging topie. However, I think it might be better to know you could go to a "poor house" than to end up homeless and on the street, or living from your car. I honestly don't know whether these existed in my home state or not. My family and those I knew were able to be in their homes and were blessed to be able to meet our/their basic needs.

    1. I actually just went and Googled poor farms in Vermont. Apparently most towns had some kind of accommodation like this. Often, several towns would combine resources to care for these people. The article I read stated that in the 1900's social programs and reform tended to replace poor farms, especially as people began to trust those programs and utilize them. In 1967, the article I read says, the Social Welfare Act removed the requirement for towns to be responsible for caring for people who would have needed help. Thanks for making me learn something this morning!

  2. Connie, I didn't know that much about the topic either. I know it's not exactly a lighthearted topic. But, at the same time I felt it was something we shouldn't sweep under the rug. Our system today isn't perfect but I am glad we have way more resources than was had back then. Thanks for sharing what you learned.

  3. Hi Pamela, I live in SW Missouri, around Joplin. About 45 minutes north is Nevada, MO. Nevada was home to the State Hospital #3. It was also called the Nevada Insane Asylum. I've known about it for years because the folks would joke, "If you don't straighten up, you'll end up in Nevada." While I worked on my family history, I discovered a few distant kinfolk had been in the Nevada Asylum. One died while there and is buried in the cemetery there. The original building was a Kirkbride building and was beautiful. It was torn down in the 1970s. But there are several other buildings still in use today by various businesses.

  4. Interesting, so sad. I wonder if the Broughton insane asylum was likely one of these places. I noticed its a very old building still in use today.