Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is the Poor Farm Cemetery Lost Again?

When I was growing up my Daddy always seemed to have some money in his pocket. He would pull out his “folding money” and peel off a ten dollar or twenty dollar bill when my sister or I would hold out our hand for something we needed, but I seriously doubt if he ever knew at any given moment the exact amount he and mother had in the bank. Mom handled the day to day bill paying, the checkbook reconciliations, and overall handling of the money once Daddy gave her his paycheck. She knew on a daily basis how much money was in play and watched it like the mother hen that she was.

We could usually gauge how things were going in the finance department with Mother’s references to the “poor house.” Statements such as, “We are going to end up in the poor house at the rate we are spending!” or “We can’t do that!  It will put us in the poor house!”  I didn’t know what or where the poor house was, but I can assure you from my mother’s tone I knew it was a place I didn’t want to go.
You might have heard someone in your past refer to the poor house. In fact, “in the poor house” is listed in most reference books as an idiom–words and phrases that are grammatically unusual or cannot be taken literally such as “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

Today, the phrase “in the poor house” can’t be taken literally, but prior to the Great Depression and the advent of Social Security poor houses were real places set aside by local governments for dependent or needy persons. They were very common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Anne Sullivan–Helen Keller’s teacher, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley all resided on a poor farm at some point in their lives.
Here in Douglasville the poor house was referred to by citizens as the poor farm, but official records used the term Alms House to refer to a type of welfare program before Social Security and welfare as we know it today came into existence.

Paupers made application to the county commissioner or county Ordinary–today’s Probate Judge. State law defined a pauper as someone who was unable to support themselves by laboring. Census records indicate most of the inmates (a term used in public records) were elderly people who had nowhere else to go and in most cases were women over the age of 50. The liability of relatives to support the poor only extended to parents and children, so this meant it was possible for extended members of a family to be out on the street once a spouse died if there were no children or parents around.
Prior to the poor farm local residents who were found to be indigent or were caught begging on the streets were often auctioned off where the pauper was sold to the lowest bidder. The bidder would agree to provide room and board paid for by the county for a specific period of time. In return, the pauper would provide some type of labor basically making the situation a form of indentured servitude. Reference is made to this in the 1883 Grand Jury Presentments for Douglas County recorded in The Weekly Star where it states, “Further that Anderson Wheeler and his wife, paupers, be let to the highest bidder.  It is also recommended that said Anderson Wheeler and his wife remain with John M. Haines until let to the lowest bidder, and that said Haines be paid twenty-five dollars per month for keeping them...”

THANK YOU for visiting “Every Now and Then” and reading the first few paragraphs of “Is the Poor Farm Cemetery Lost Again?“ which is now one of the 140 chapters in my book “Every Now and Then: The Amazing Tales of Douglas County, Volume I”. 

Visit the Amazon link by clicking the book cover below where you can explore the table of contents and read a few pages of the book…plus make a purchase if you choose!

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