Poor Farm History
Poor Farm House
In October of 1900 the Butler County Poor Farm officially opened. Local papers described the house as having “ample accommodations, with every modern living convenience" - including steam heating, gas lighting, well water, and hardwood floors.
As its name implied, it was not only a home to as many as 100 poverty-stricken residents, but was also a fully functioning farm. Residents were given tasks on the farm such as caring for the livestock animals and growing the produce.
Produce grown on the farm would not only supply the poor farm with revenue but would also give the residents something to eat. The farm grew crops such as rye, oats, corn, potatoes, cabbage, etc.
The first superintendent of the Butler County Poor Farm was Joseph Graham, a retired Civil War veteran and reputedly a hero during the battle of Gettysburg. Graham’s job as superintendent was to make sure that each pauper was checked into the poor farm. The superintendent would do his best to make the residents feel at home by giving them a set of clean clothes, washing their clothes, or offering them a bath.
The job as a superintendent was to not only look after the residents but to also manage the farm as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, not all superintendents were able to fulfill this responsibility.
Raising Children on a Poor Farm
Residents of the poor farm ranged from infants to the elderly. However, one of the highest populations on the poor farm was single mothers. Many women would arrive at the poor farm with very young children. Often pregnant women would have to seek refuge in these places right before they were able to give birth so that they had a safe, warm place to take care of themselves, their newborn infant, and their other children as well. Growing up in this environment was very bleak, especially for young children who often had to grow up fast because of the unfortunate situation that they were born into.
There were also a significant number of elderly occupants who checked in especially during the winter months. These occupants were usually widows and widowers who did not want to live alone during the dark, cold winter months. Some would check into the poor farm voluntarily, knowing that they might not survive the winter if they remained in their home alone. In this way, the farm served as a safety net for the elderly and could be compared to something like today’s nursing homes.
Once the weather cleared up, some of the elderly residents felt confident enough to return to their homes and take care of themselves. If they reached the point where they were unable to support themselves, they would be encouraged by the authorities to remain at the poor farm year-round. This often reluctant admittance was because of the reputation of “a pauper’s grave.” This meant that elderly residents did not want to die in the poor farms and be known in life as a pauper once they had passed away.
Abuses and Investigations
Despite the hopeful beginning, challenges to the farm's maintenance and living conditions emerged early in its history. A grand jury visited the poor farm in 1904 to check on the living conditions. They reported everything in the building to be in good condition, but also recommended that the next grand jury should do more investigation into the management of the farm.
The next grand jury came to investigate in 1912 and reported vastly different circumstances: The house was filthy and overcrowded. People who were healthy were rooming with people who were ill, which increased the spread of contagious disease. The pipes were leaking and there was trash piled in the attic, which was not only unhealthy but a fire hazard. The building, in constant threat of catching fire, had no useable fire protection—the fire hose was rotten. The jury concluded that the building should be condemned. They blamed the management for these poor conditions and stated “Reforms in the management should be made at once and the county home should be what it was designed to be—not a poor house for paupers—but a home for unfortunates.”
Changes in Social Welfare
During the 20th century, the practices and philosophy of social welfare and charity for the poor evolved dramatically. During the 1930s, state and federal programs began to move toward de-institutionalization of the poor, in favor of income support, subsidized housing, and other support measures. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided pensions for the elderly, frequently one of the largest demographics in places like the Butler County Poor Farm. The trend away from isolating the poor in institutions accelerated after World War II, and in 1963 the Butler County Poor Farm reorganized as a nursing home for the elderly, and today operates as Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.