Sangamon County Poor Farm

A picnic at the Sangamon County Poor Farm -- possibly an annual inspection by county officials -- in the late 1800s or early 1900s. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

A picnic at the Sangamon County Poor Farm — possibly an annual inspection by county officials — in the late 1800s or early 1900s. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

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.)

New: One-minute YouTube video showing the Sangamon County Poor Farm cemetery in 2024.

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.

Unidentified woman resident of the poor farm, one of eight such drawings done in 1912 or 1913 by Springfield artist Alfred S. Harkness. Published in The Survey magazine, April 5, 1913. See all eight drawings here.

“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.

Poor farm residents 

The only known remaining records of poor farm admissions are three volumes covering most of the years between 1875 and 1905.  The records are  both limited and heartbreaking.

Sample page from poor farm census, Nov.-Dec. 1886. First Dec. 1 listing expurgated by SangamonLink (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The records reflect the poor farm’s practice of compiling full lists of residents every three months. People admitted between those counts were added as they arrived. The lists were columnar. From left to right, a listing would show the person’s date of admission; his or her name (if he or she was Black, there was a note “COL”, meaning “colored”); the person’s age; the reason he or she was at the farm; and their country of birth.

The last two columns reported under whose authority the resident was committed to the farm and, if they left, the date they did so. However, there are entries in those last two columns only for people admitted or discharged between the three-month resident counts.

Most of the admissions were done by a county official who had the title “overseer of the poor” – a patronage office that, for instance, was held by Samuel C. Parker (1846-1918) in 1886. His qualifications to oversee the poor? He was a decorator; Parker’s obituary says he was responsible for decorating the interior of the Statehouse.

Each township also had an overseer of the poor, and county judges could commit people to the poor farm as well.

Some of those admitted, the records show, didn’t stay at the farm very long – relatives, friends, or employers might step forward when someone they knew was sent to the farm.

If someone wasn’t released quickly, however, he or she was likely to spend months or even years as poor farm residents. And, of course, since illness was often what forced someone to enter the poor house in the first place, the records list a fair number of deaths there — as in the case of 26-year R.F. Fairburn, who, according to the page above, died of “jonders” (jaundice) only two weeks after he entered the poor farm.

The column showing the reason a resident was admitted is the most melancholy. Some common reasons: “destitute;” “insane;” “rheumatism,” “old & infirm.” Saddest of all, perhaps, was a man who was at the farm for several years. He couldn’t hear or speak, he was Black, and whatever he was named at birth, no one knew it. So the Dec. 1, 1886 quarterly census identifies him as “N—–, Dum (col.)”, age 53. (Expurgation by SangamonLink)

Columbus Wilson

Columbus 'Pigeon' Wilson, 1944 (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Columbus ‘Pigeon’ Wilson, 1944 (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The best-known resident of the poor farm was the one who lived there longest:  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 1887. (For the first few years of his residency, farm records identify him as “Calhoon” Wilson. However, closer examination of the incomplete records, along with contemporary newspaper stories, make it clear that Calhoon and Columbus Wilson were the same person.)

Wilson was still at the poor farm when it closed in 1944. He did odd jobs around the facility, especially digging postholes, for most of that time. Friendly and cheerful, Wilson was well-known in the village of Buffalo, which he visited frequently.

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 columnist 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.

Forgotten site

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.)

Remnant of the Sangamon County Poor Farm, 2015 (SCHS)

Remnant of the Sangamon County Poor Farm, 2015 (SCHS)

The farm’s buildings were demolished over the years – the last, an unroofed brick shell, sometime after 2015. By 2024, the only remnant of the farm was a tiny, neglected cemetery located on Fleck Road, a barely drivable gravel path that runs south from Old U.S. 36 east of Buffalo. Except for people who died between 1875 and 1905, no one knows who’s buried there. The only grave markers are three-inch by three-inch stones, buried in weeds and fallen trees, with numbers chiseled into them. No cemetery records remain, so there’s no way to tell who lies in which grave.

Springfield public health expert Dr. George T. Palmer visited the poor farm in 1912 or early 1913 to write an article for The Survey, a sociology magazine. He found physical conditions at the poor farm to be relatively good. But the concept was still a hopeless one.

This, seemingly, was no place to come for the ugly story of destitution — for the revolting facts which force us, almost against our wills, to paint our picture in glaring yellow. But the destitution was there. You could see it in the expression, the gait and the posture of the inmates; you could smell it in the unmistakable smell of poverty and you could feel it in the indefinable something which grips you and oppresses you in an institution of this kind.

It was a poorhouse and nothing but a poorhouse—a good poorhouse, if there is such a thing, but a poorhouse none the less. Like thousands of similar institutions, it stood ready to receive the individual when he strikes the very bottom of the toboggan slide of life, to house him and to feed him humanely enough, but with the saving of dimes and nickels regarded as the cardinal virtue of efficient management.  … Like thousands of others, it was one of those places where we receive the unfortunate; where we label him a pauper; where we tolerate his presence until death reduces the county expense or until he goes out into the world again not a whit better off, physically, mentally or morally, on account of his association with us.

In his profile of the Sangamon County Poor Farm before its closure, A.L. Bowen – who knew his subject; he had been director of the state Department of Public Welfare during the Great Depression – likewise 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.

Note: This entry was expanded in 2024 to include more information about residents of the poor farm.

More information: Bowen’s articles of Sept. 27 and 28, 1944, are available on newspaper databases and in the vertical file at Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection. A long profile of the farm and some of its residents published by the Springfield News on Nov. 11, 1905, also is in the file.

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 and on microfilm.

Dr. George T. Palmer’s well-written  article, “Why Is the Pauper?” was published in the April 5, 1913, edition of The Survey magazine. The article is accompanied by eight remarkable drawings of poor farm residents (including the one of the woman above) done by Springfield illustrator Alfred S. Harkness.

The Springfield Survey critiqued the poor farm, in particular its unsuitability as a facility for the mentally ill, in 1914.

For more about poor farm management, see SangamonLink’s entries Family life at the Sangamon County Poor Farm and Sheriff’s ouster, 1933.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 



This entry was posted in Local government, Medicine, Public health, Sangamon County, Social services. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sangamon County Poor Farm

  1. Marilyn Underwood says:

    My G.G. Grandmother was put there in 1896 but can only find records through 1905; she was there in 1900 census but not 1910. If they closed in 1944 – what happened to all the records of inmates? My cousin & I went out there about 7-8 yrs. ago and you couldn’t even see the FENCE let alone a cemetery. It’s horrible that they don’t keep places like this dignified by keeping it cleaned up and deaths investigated, records updated. We were out there again 2 yrs ago, and had been told a ‘gentleman’ was cleaning it up, which was in process when we were there – even then it looked better. Many thanks to that gentleman. The article above is very good and also heart wrenching. With the State and County claiming it’s the others JOB (I contacted both), it will never be restored. Thank you for printing it.

    • editor says:

      Marilyn: Yes, it’s pretty clear that records often weren’t a priority for poor farm administrators. The cemetery needed work when I was there recently, but that may simply have been because of the season. Hopefully, maintenance will resume this spring.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Amber says:

    I have grown up in this area and would drive past it daily. Something always drew me to it for some reason. I was really into photography in high school and took many picture of it. I asked my dad about it as he was raised in that area and was told it was a poor house. I never saw a cemetery? I really wish they wouldn’t have demolished this place. Like I said, I always have a pull to when I pass it. I even wrote a paper for it in college. I love the history of the place.

  3. Kathy Beckmier says:

    So glad to have finally found an article about a poor farm in central Illinois. I was told by my grandmother that her mother had managed a poor farm in neighboring Christian County, Il. I can only hope that my great-grandmother showed concern for the residents, doing her best to be compassionate towards them. Were the superintendents usually women?

    Does anyone have any information about the poor farm/house in neighboring Christian County? Does anyone have any photographs of the structure?

    • editor says:

      Ms. Beckmier: In Sangamon County, at any rate, the superintendents were almost always men (possibly all of them were, I haven’t checked all the way through its existence). Sometimes the superintendents’ wives oversaw women residents and their living conditions.

      I can’t help you with the Christian County farm, but if you can tell me the name of your great-grandmother and about when she would have been superintendent, I can see if I can find anything under her name in the Springfield newspapers.

      Christian County papers aren’t online that far back, though, if you’re ever in Taylorville, it’s possible that the Breeze-Courier has paper clippings you could check.

      Sorry we can’t be more help. Thanks for reading.

  4. John Weinhoeft says:

    I discovered one of my ancestors is buried there through court records and his death certificate. His wife ended up in Bartonville.

    When I researched this some years back, I discovered my wife knew the current property owner, so we got in touch with him, and got permission to visit. According to him, at some point before he acquired the property, the cemetery was plowed up just like the rest of the property. He had found a few markers and placed them at the edge of what once was the graveyard.

    I suspect if someone wanted to spend years going through court records and death certificates, you could compile a list of most of the former residents. But it’s not a task I would want to take on.

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