At the heart of the story of county poorhouses is the struggle for survival that brought local government officials to the aid of people who were destitute and had nowhere else to go. This model was considered an improvement over the practice of auctioning off people to live with households who gave the lowest bid.
Overseers of the Poor ruled with an uneasy mix of benevolence and stern demands. Indoor relief required able-bodied residents to work on the farm in exchange for bare-bones shelter and meager portions of food. Ledgers were kept of admissions with a word on what injury, illness, or incident brought them there. Persons with mental problems were often isolated from the others.
Poorhouses, also known as almshouses, workhouses, or county homes reached their highest numbers in the mid-1800’s. As years went by, the people who had passed through their doors were largely forgotten. Most buildings were demolished. Some sites were left crumbling and vacant, while a few that remain are used as nursing homes, county offices, college classrooms, or apartments.
Preserving poorhouse history allows us to honor all those who trudged over the hills and into the county homes. They are as much a part of our history as people of good fortune and fame. For this reason, I began a personal pilgrimage to visit county poorhouse sites and cemeteries across New York State in January 2018.
My blog reflects places visited as my journey continues.
Sheila Harrigan, 6-21-21
(photo by author)