Sangamon County first created a home to care for the poor, feeble, disabled and mentally ill in 1851, four years after famed social reformer Dorothea Dix wrote a scathing commentary about the county’s practice of keeping paupers and the insane in the Sangamon County Jail. (Prior to 1844 or ’45, according to Dix’s letter, the county imposed a year’s indenture on anyone found to be a pauper; by the time she wrote in 1847, however, officials had decided it was cheaper to house them in the jail.)
In 1851, the county board bought a property known as “Two Mile House,” a 115-acre site that included a former tavern. It was named because it was about two miles north of the city proper.
That original poor farm was turned over to the Sangamon County Agricultural and Mechanical Association in 1869 for use as a county fairgrounds. It now is part of the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
To replace that property, the county paid $20,000 for 380 acres of land 1.5 miles east of Buffalo as the site for the new farm. About 200 acres were immediately sold off. Later descriptions of the farm give varying sizes for the property, from 177 to 188 acres.
Whatever its extent, the land had potential. The Illinois State Journal, in a Sept. 23, 1870, article, described the property as ”one of the most elegant farms in the county … high, rolling prairie in a high state of cultivation, through which runs a stream of never-failing water.”
Officials sought bids to build a poor house on the property in July 1870. A two-story, 44-room building was built to house 100 people, men in the east wing and women in the west, with a large hall, dining room, sitting rooms and medical areas in the middle, along with offices and staff quarters.
“Well ventilated cells for insane persons” originally were planned for the end of each first-floor wing; ultimately, however the cells – apparently with far less ventilation — were installed in the basement. The building opened, ahead of schedule, that December.
Despite the expense and obvious good intentions of county officials, conditions at the poor farm turned grim in less than two years. The county board fired the farm’s operators, identified as “the Crenshaw brothers,” in October 1872, following a report on conditions at the farm by the county’s physician, Dr. L. Gillett. Among his findings:
The food placed on the table most of the time for the paupers is not good, healthy food. Sometimes the dinners are good enough, both as to quality and quantity … and sometimes it is not fit for any one to eat.
The miserable compound of rye and cheap molasses furnished for breakfast as a substitute for coffee is sickening to drink, and produces debility and consequent disease. The invariable supper for the four months that I have been in attendance has been mush and sour milk. Sometimes as an especial favor, the sour milk has been changed to butter milk. …
As for the beds some of them are too filthy for any one to sleep in, bugs without number have taken possession of them, and can be seen by any one who will take the trouble to look; the straw in some of the beds is rather “thin.” …
John Coy is a man who has been an inmate of the poor house for several years, and is paralyzed so that he cannot take care of himself. I examined him yesterday and find that his head is one mass of vermin. I am informed by some of the paupers that they are never furnished any soap for washing themselves with.
The slops from the kitchen are thrown on the ground within six feet of the well that supplies water to the pauper department. The privies are filthy beyond description and a disgrace to any public charity.
Gillett’s report set a pattern for the farm. The institution was created to be self-supporting – it raised its own livestock, which were fed on the farm’s own hay and grain, and operated its own dairy, bakery, kitchen garden and icehouse. Capable residents did some of the work, but the county also hired farmhands and housekeepers.
However, superintendents were usually political appointees, and the quality of care for residents depended greatly on the superintendent’s diligence and how much attention the county board of supervisors and public paid to the farm. County board members made annual inspections, but those were often social outings – picnics featuring barrels of lemonade and sleight-of-hand performances — more than serious examinations of the facility.
When outsiders dropped in unexpectedly, however, the results too often were like those reported by a state inspector in March 1912:
The place needs a general overhauling, an application of soap and water, the infusion of fresh air and sunshine, and the introduction of modern ideas in the care of the classes which inhabit such institutions.
The bedding is dirty, old rubbish stored under many of the straw mattresses. Window panes which have been broken have been replaced with old boards. Throughout the building there are numerous leakages in the pipes. Although the almshouse is far from fireproof, the building is at present unprotected, as the hose is not connected with running water.
The number of poor farm residents was frequently above the design capacity of 100 during the 74 years the farm operated – usually about 150 people lived there, and at times the population approached 200. The vast majority were men. Most residents were old and incapacitated in some way.
The resident of the longest duration appears to have been Columbus Wilson, known as “Pigeon.” Wilson, thought to have been born into slavery in Virginia in the 1850s or early 1860s, probably entered the poor farm in the 1887; he was still there when the farm closed in 1944. He did odd jobs around the facility, especially digging postholes, for most of that time.
Wilson’s particular delusion was that he was extremely wealthy, that he owned the poor farm itself and had millions of dollars in bank accounts and government bonds, funds he regularly tried to access by writing checks. Illinois State Journal and Register reporter A.L. Bowen wrote about Wilson shortly before the farm’s closure.
From his pockets he brings a wad of checks for untold amounts. He asked me to cash the smallest one. “It’s only $75,000,” he assured me. For all this wealth in his grasp, the only coin of the realm he could produce from his immense pockets was a thin dime. …
With true pride of ownership of what to him is a palace, “Pigeon” took me about, showing me into all the rooms and explaining them to me. He was particularly solicitous that I see where he sleeps in a huge room on the basement level with a door opening out to the south.
When I parted from him, I could not help feeling that mental aberration, after all, is not wholly a misfortune. It must be something to live continuously in a world of pleasant fantasies.
The poor farm eventually became an anachronism, and with the number of residents dropping –only 58 people remained in the home by 1944 – the county board closed the facility and sold the property. Residents were transferred to boarding homes or, in the case of the mentally ill, to state institutions. (Pigeon Wilson moved to the Jacksonville State Hospital; it could not immediately be determined when or where he died.)
Most of the farm’s buildings were demolished. The only remnants today are the brick shell of one outbuilding and a tiny, neglected cemetery located on a dirt road that runs south from Old U.S. 36. Only one of what might be 100 graves appears to be maintained.
In his profile of the Sangamon County Poor Farm before its closure, Bowen summed up the institution as a failure.
(I)t was founded on the theory on which all poorhouses have been founded, the paupers living within would do the work. They would farm the lands and raise the stock and make it self-supporting.
But paupers are paupers either because they cannot or will not work. Poorhouses have been failures and, in most instances, inhumane instruments of misguided charity. Sangamon’s poorhouse has been no exception to the general rule; in fact, it has been an outstanding monument to the folly of an obvious impossibility.
More information: Bowen’s articles of Sept. 27 and 28, 1944, are available in the vertical file at Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection. A long profile of the farm and some of its residents published on Nov. 11, 1905, by the Springfield News also is in the file. The photo above of “Pigeon” Wilson is one of those that accompanied Bowen’s story.
Dorothea Dix’s commentary (signed “D. Dix”) appeared in March 4, 1847 editions of both the Sangamo Journal and Illinois State Register.
Many other newspaper articles about the farm are available via NewsBank and on microfilm.
Springfield public health expert and survey advocate Dr. George T. Palmer analyzed the poor farm’s population in a well-written article, “Why Is the Pauper?” in the April 5, 1913, edition of The Survey magazine. Palmer’s article is also noteworthy for the remarkable drawings of eight residents (including the one above) done by Springfield illustrator Alfred S. Harkness. See all eight drawings here.
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