Friday, March 10, 2017
Fear of the Poor Farm and Other Misinformed Memories
When I was a child, a trip to the county seat to conduct business was a big event. We lived on a farm and were largely self-sustaining; purchases of store-bought foods were a delight. Since such trips were rare, most were clearly memorable, or so I thought.
On one such trip when I may have been about five-years-old, my mother took a gift to a relative living at the “County Poor House.” It was a cold and bitter day, yet for some reason we did not go inside the two story, badly worn building. A man came to the doorway to accept her offering and I became quite frightened, as he had a strange look on his face and seemed physically ill. He was clad only in overalls, his chest and shoulders bare.
It was that visit that began my fear of the poor farm. It was years before I learned enough to know of the state poor laws, how indigent people were dealt with or financed, or how people came to be in need of such care. Now I know of the hardships of the great depression and how people lost their jobs and property. I know of the dust bowl, and economic downturns in the area and how the passing of the Social Security Act became a blessing to the old, ill and mentally ill. With age not only comes knowledge, but also compassion.
That relative has been lost in a jumble of misremembered information, but in my family genealogy research, I documented a relative that did actually live and die at the poor farm and that led me to try to link the memory with fact. I could not. The poor farm was torn down before I was even born. That memory may have been a visit to a care home or a private residence. Now when I recall the threat of my mother that my extravagant requests would “send us to the county poor farm,” I can laugh. Now I realize we wouldn’t have had far to go.
The obituary of the relative who actually did reside at the poor farm is a sad story. Family lore describes an alcoholic who never married and whose illness led him further away from family as he aged. He died at the age of 75 and 7 months, leaving two sisters. He was buried at the County Poor Farm Cemetery and ”No relatives were here for the funeral.”
Eventually a nice stone was erected at the site of the poor farm and cemetery; for all were buried without stones to mark their graves. There are 104 names on the monument. Records indicate the first died in 1892, the last in 1940. A report by the Ark City Traveler (July 27, 2002) indicates the majority died between 1930 – 1939 during the Great Depression. My family member died in 1931. Was it alcoholism that killed him, or the poverty of the depression? Perhaps it was just old age.
A friend and I talked about our plans for grave markers recently and we jointly agreed that regardless of the method of our bodily disposal, we wanted to have a marker for our families to find and reflect upon. It has to do with that sense of place that is needed to ground a person who must deal with death. Hopefully, there are hundreds of loving memories to draw on and our services well attended. Scatter my ashes over the wheat fields if you want, but leave a marker to reflect on.
All this family history research can bring about serious thoughts, and I am so sorry that a family member died in such a plight, but I have a list of hundreds of others who lived long, happy and productive lives. Their obituaries reflect that they were important people to someone and loved as a result.
I do not dwell on sadness, as I believe lives are to be lived with joy. I do think about being of importance though, so again I recall that wonderful old prayer that is always good to wake to:
“Lord, let me be a blessing to someone today.”