Anderson County Poor Farm
By Dana Goolsby
Palestine- “Winding up on the Poor Farm,” wasn’t just an expression or an idle phrase used to describe a bad business venture a long time ago. Poor Farms, poor houses or almshouses, are not a figment of your parent’s, grandparent’s, or your great-grandparent’s imaginations. They were a very real place, of which one did not want to be forced to go to as a result of economic failures and hard times.
Though the poor farm is no longer a part of our modern society, the history of the institution should not be overlooked. The history of the poor farm provides insight into the development of the state’s public welfare system and its overall attitude toward federal relief. The existence of the poor farm in Texas is part of a larger national story that shows how nineteenth and twentieth century America responded to the needs of its indigents for almost 100 years.
Poor Farms are defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “A farm that houses, supports, and employs the poor at the public’s expense.” Poor Farms were the predecessor to modern day welfare, and society’s dumping grounds for outcasts. Those who were insane, tubercular, deaf, imbecile, criminal, aged, or poor were often placed together on county poor farms. They were viewed as hopeless and useless.
Prior to the Great Depression, America’s poor were handled within a system that evolved from seventeenth century English poor laws, and generally provided minimal relief and involved limited government services. American colonist transplanted Elizabethan England methods of care for the poor, and emphasized poverty as disgraceful and provided relief strictly to avoid disorder.
Texas poor farms operated quietly, with little to no interaction with the public. They were established to deal efficiently with growing problem, but were never considered governmental institutions of importance. Poor farm inhabitants were seen as destitute outcasts. Today the history of Texas’ poor farms is greatly overshadowed by the establishment of New Deal relief agencies and the ultimate welfare revolution.
The first mention of a county poor farm in Texas can be found in within the 1869 constitution. Article XII, sections 26 reads, “Each county in the State shall provide, in such a manner as may be prescribed by law, a Manual Labor Poor House, for taking care of, managing, employing, and supplying the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants; and under such regulations as the legislature may direct, all persons committing petty offenses in the county may be committed to such Manual Labor Poor House for correction and employment.”
By including that provision, the State of Texas harnessed county governments with the direct responsibility for its poor. The provision also reinforced to popular nationwide beliefs: 1) Care was to be based on the principle of “less eligibility,” and 2) assistance was never intended to provide a life as comfortable in comparison to that which non-recipients had.
In the Lone Star State, Texans who survived the frontier experience viewed rugged individualism as a value and applauded opportunity and success. Excessive dependence was not looked upon kindly or with sympathy. Texas took great caution in order to avoid unwarranted assistance. Texas, along with many other states, required poor farm inhabitants, also known as paupers, to take an oath, and swear to their lack of goods and their desperate need for assistance. Paupers would then forfeit the control of their personal lives and basic rights as a citizen, including their right to vote, and move to the poor farm. Such extreme requirements were intended to be a deterrent for those seeking to live on the poor farm. Only the most desperate and those who were the least prideful inhabited the poor farms.
Poor farms have vanished due to federal relief programs, and their rapidly fading histories have mostly been entirely forgotten. The Texas Poor Farm has become a mythical part of our past, even though poor houses and farms have been around for hundreds of years and some were operating into the 1960s. Little is known today of the state’s early attempts at government intervention during times of individual and national crisis, and even some of the most seasoned Texans do not recall their county’s poor farm, or for that matter, realize poor farms existed outside of an expression.
Few area residents are aware that Anderson County had a poor farm. Lifelong Anderson County resident Carol Staples was unaware that such an institution ever existed within the county.
“It is amazing that I have lived here all of my life and never knew that,” Staples said.
Other area residents contribute the lack of knowledge surrounding the poor farm to generations before them that were not forthcoming.
“Older generations just did not talk about things. Maybe they thought they were protecting younger people, but things such as this were not spoken of,” said another area resident.
Despite there being little remains of the institution, the poor farm system was quite common in Texas. According to a survey of county clerks and county historical commissions in 1987, at least 65 of Texas’ 254 counties had some type of county-operated poor farm.
In 1861, the 15-year-old Anderson County had encountered a problem with its poor. That year, the Anderson County Court ordered petitioned the State Legislature to pass an act which would authorize the County Commissioners to purchase a tract of land in order to erect a poor house. The county specified that the tract of land not exceed 200 acres within five miles of Palestine. The Anderson County Court also requested that the court be authorized to levy and collect an amount sufficient to pay for the land and necessary building, by way of taxation.
With the War Between the States approaching, the State Legislature and Anderson County Court put the poor house on the back burner until the 1870s, also known as the Reconstruction Days. In 1872, the court again petitioned the State Legislature for authorization to construct a poor house.
February 1872, Anderson County purchased property for an intended poor house, however, by March of that year Presiding Justice W.T. Smith was ordered to rent a building and furnish the paupers with food, clothing and fuel. According to Anderson County Commissioners Court Minute Books, money was to be withdrawn from any fund other than those set aside for road repairs or jury service. Smith was also instructed to erect a building on any vacant lot in Palestine owned by the county.
That same year, R. Dowling was named as Steward over the Anderson County Poor Farm, however, according to the Texas Historical Commission, no records or deeds can be located which detail the arrangement made between Dowling and the county. There are, however, multiple records concerning the care of several indigents. According to the Anderson County Historical Commission, there are numerous records regarding the care of an “indigent widow,” an “indigent person,” Paupers,” and an “indigent blind person.” Other records used only the term, “indigent.”
In Anderson County, it appears to have been customary for one person to care for each individual and then present the county with a bill for the rendered care each quarter in order to receive payment. Amounts for care rendered reportedly varied at substantial rates. For instance, one person might receive $100 for the care of a pauper, while another might receive $25. Due to such variations, Anderson County eventually insisted that paupers and those representing them must appear before the court and be verified, otherwise no appropriations would be allowed.
A little more than a decade later, in 1884, Anderson County finally obtained its poor farm. The county paid $2,700 for approximately 462 acres, located south of Palestine on Sycamore Road. This acreage was part of 800 acres originally patented to Stephen Crist on May 21, 1835. The Anderson County Auditor funded $1, 000 for the county poor farm.
January 1, 1887, R.J. Wallace was named manager of the Anderson County Poor Farm. Anderson County hired its poor farm superintendent in a different manner than other poor farms. The agreement between the Anderson County Poor Farm and the superintendent allowed Wallace to rent the poor farm for $275 per year. His contract specified his duties in regards of caring for the paupers, and allowed for food and clothing at $6.50 per month. The contract also allowed for feeding convicts and farm hands at .20 cents per day as well. The county also provided clothing, medicine, and doctors visits for poor farm tenants. The county made a stipulation which ensured no funds would be provided for babies nursing their own mother, which indicated it was not inhabited by only elderly tenants. Selecting and hiring a superintendent to manage a poor farm was an important process. County commissioner courts selected superintendents, usually for a two year term, who lived on and managed the poor farm. Superintendents were paid a salary, which averaged approximately $300 per year. Superintendents were given additional money for farm expenses, and in order to provide paupers with clothing, medicine, and doctor visits when needed.
The Poor Farm superintendent was also responsible for hiring additional help, which included guards, managers, and laborers. Other duties included organizing the planting of the crops, overseeing all property management, maintaining order, ensuring that poor farm tenants were not grossly mistreated, and keeping written records. A superintendent’s wife was also expected to perform certain duties, at no additional pay. Washing, cooking, and sewing for the poor farm tenants were part of her duties.
Poor farm populations varied, but averaged 15 to 20 indigents per farm according to records. Parker County Poor Farm records are consistent with the average, while Colorado County Poor Farm records of 1912 reported 27 indigents residing on its farm. The Anderson County Poor Farm reported approximately 100 burials over the course of roughly 50 years.
By the 1930s, Texas’ poor farms began to be replaced and farm populations dropped, but did not disappear. Collin County Poor Farm maintained a handful of indigents into the 1940s. Cass County Poor Farm closed its doors in 1956 when the superintendent died with one pauper left, and Wise County Poor Farm remained open until 1962, with two paupers remaining.
Due to lack of sufficient records, there are almost no specific references to be found which describe the original buildings on the property. Interviews conducted in the mid 1980s offer brief descriptions of the site, as told by J.B. Crutcher and Stanley Walton, both of which were previous owners of the poor farm.
At the time of the interviews conducted with Crutcher and Walton a collapsing potato barn was still on the property. The hand-hewn notched log construction, with whitened clay used as mortar had seen better days. High winds and extreme weather had taken their toll on the primitive 18×20 building. Inside the barn were a double tier of bins used to store potatoes after they were harvested.
The structure used to house the county’s indigents was a long curving row of rooms. The building was covered with native rocks. According to Anderson County Historical Commission records, there were somewhere between 10 and 14 rooms. A v-shaped lounging rooms was built on to one end of the building, complete with a native rock chimney. Ruins of the structure existed until the property was purchased by Crutcher, who demolished the remains of the structure due to dangerous conditions.
In 1882, a jail was constructed on the property. The jail, which is still standing today, was constructed as an adjoining building with the structure used to house the indigents. According county records, convicts that were housed at the poor farm worked on road crews and on the farm to “work off” their sentences.
Today, the native rock exterior is separating from the reinforced concrete walls of the old jail. One end of the 66’x13 ½ ‘ structure was considered “minimum security.” The two minimum security rooms were adjoined with the housing structure. In the corner of each room is a slightly raised area and a drain. The drains are believed to be for showers that were installed later. Also, each minimum security room has a flue, which is presumed to have been for cooking and/or heating. Both rooms of the minimum security area have barred windows, and massive metal doors.
On the inside of each metal door a set of rules was painted, which read:
At the sound of the bell make beds and sweep out.
Scrub commodes and lavatory.
Do not wash clothes under shower.
Flush commode immediately after use.
Take a shower each Wednesday night.
Help keep this place clean, and this means YOU.
These rules are thought to have been revised as time progressed.
The opposite end of the jail was considered maximum security. On this end two cells containing two metal bunk beds each , one window a piece, and one heavy metal lattice style doors. The heavy doors opened into a small area that was separated from the outside by another heavy metal door. The locking system for the maximum security area was intricate and individual. There were places to lock each individual cell, the holding area, the outside door, and there was also a master switch that could be locked. Local legend suggests the heat must have been almost unbearable, and was likely built in such a fashion as a deterrent for bad behavior.
Farming conducted on poor farms was primarily done in order to provide tenants with food. Counties generally did not sell crops for profit, however, an occasional cash for cotton venture did take place. Each poor farm grew what was best suited for its land. Anderson County grew cotton, potatoes and corn. Hogs were also raised on the Anderson County Poor Farm, and there was also a canning operation.
An estimated 75 to 100 pauper graves are also an area of interest on the old Anderson County Poor Farm. The last marker for the many graves was a lone metal funeral marker close to the southern edge of the property. Since Anderson County records only reflect the cost of pauper burials, coffins, burial clothes, and grave digging pauper names details are likely lost forever.
Anderson, Parker, and Cass counties are unique for their written documentation. The Texas Historical Commission surveyed county historical commissions for their poor farm information and received fewer than five responses from 252 different commissions.
The final chapter of the Anderson County Poor Farm began in 1957. The Anderson County Commissioners Court minutes reported a final lease through December 1958. In 1960 the poor farm went up for sale. Jewett Kiser purchased the poor farm at an auction, and then sold it to Stanley Walton in 1962. Walton sold the poor farm a month later to J.B. Crutcher.
The poor farm has remains in the Crutcher family today. Family members have fond memories of time spent playing on the property as children.
“I spent a lot of time playing in that old jail. We would play cowboys and bad guys,” said family member Mike Bishop.
Joe Crutcher also has fond memories of growing up on the farm, and continues to make memories with his grandchildren.
“It has a lot of history, but we use it more for storage than anything these days. It has also become more of a playhouse for grandchildren,” Crutcher said.
Crutcher also said his family used the old jail as a storm shelter for many years.
“My mom and dad used to head to the old jail when storm clouds blew in. It was a fortress, so you didn’t have tow worry about it blowing away,” Crutcher said.
Crutcher is in the process of planting coastal Bermuda grass on the property, as it is still a functioning farm today.
Time has marched on and the winds of change have blown swiftly through Anderson County. The constantly fading history of the Texas’ poor farm system is inching closer to non-existence and will soon live only in the memories of those who choose to recall the early efforts to care for the poor.