Life on the Champaign County Poor Farm:

 More Questions than Answers

By Lori Ellinger

AHTC Summer Institute 2009

Reform, Reformers and Reformatories


I was excited and eager to attend my first AHTC Summer Institute on Reform, Reformers and Reformatories.  I listened with interest, amusement and horror as Timothy Gilfoyle described the life of Quimbo Appo.  I marveled at the accomplishments of early reformers during Stacey Robertson’s fascinating presentation.  As I listened, I began to wonder what life was like for the poor in Champaign County in that era.  Then I learned that what had once been the Champaign County Nursing Home had previously housed the Champaign County poor farm.  Now I became intrigued.  What kind of people lived on our county poor farm?   What was life like for those residents, especially the children?  What records or documents existed that could provide insight into this community institution?


As a starting point, I examined the disc provided by the AHTC Summer Institute. There I found a few fascinating bits of information on the Champaign County poor farm.  The oldest document was a newspaper “want ad” from 1883.  The ad, titled, “Wanted Homes for Children”, advertised the availability of ten children for adoption from the poor farm.  The children ranged in age from 8 weeks to 11 years.   My first response to this ad was that it looked very much like ads I often saw in the current Champaign News Gazette newspaper – except that these modern day ads were for the sale of puppies and kittens. Many questions came to mind. Were these orphan children?  Were parents in the poor farm considered unable or unfit to care for their children?  Were conditions on the poor farm so unpleasant that residents wished to put their children up for adoption rather than keep them? 


The next document on the AHTC disc was a newspaper article from Nov. 20, 1890.  (Page 1, Page 2) The article described a reporter’s visit and impressions of the Champaign County Poor Farm. The main purpose of this article seemed to have been to change the negative public image of poor house conditions. “This house is not the hideous, dirty, lonesome place which you hear about when anyone has occasion to speak of a poor-house, but is a good, comfortable and clean place, which from the road resembles a well-to-do farmer’s home.”  The author goes on to describe the table settings, food (all steam cooked) and furnishings.  The article continues with a very brief description of a separate building, the “mad-house”.  The only description of any residents on the poor farm is found this section, “The department (the mad-house)…has at present six inmates, two or three of whom have been there as long as anyone can remember and they don’t have enough sense to eat, when food is handed to them.” This news article provided some additional information about life on Champaign’s poor farm in the late 1800’s.  However, it prompted still more questions.  Was this an accurate description?  The article suggested that the public lacked knowledge of the poor farm.  Did poor farm residents interact with the larger community in any way?  Did the children from the poor farm attend local public schools?  “Mad” adults were certainly housed at the poor farm in Champaign County. What happened to mentally ill or retarded children?  Were they also placed on the poor farm or in the “mad-house”?


A photo was also among the documents on the AHTC disc. Taken circa 1907, it showed a group of thirty-six people in front of large, two story brick building.  The photo was labeled, “county farm”. The photo was difficult to see clearly but appeared to include only adults.  There were more men than women and several people who were obviously elderly. Four women standing in the center, close to the building, seemed to be younger and better dressed than most of the others. Perhaps these were staff members? There was no information accompanying the photo other than the label. Once again questions came to mind.  How had each of the people pictured come to live under the care of poor house? Where were the children in this photo?  Were children no longer housed at the poor-farm by 1907? 


Another document on the AHTC disc was a timeline of the Champaign County Poor Farm.  (Page 1, Page 2) The timeline began in March of 1858 with the recommendation of the purchase of land for a county poor farm with quarters for “at least 10 persons, including keepers”.   The document showed that land was purchased in December of 1858.   In December of 1859, bids were asked for “the keeping of paupers” and renting the county farm. Exactly where the “paupers” were living was unclear.  However, in March 1860, the timeline notes that a Mr. George Ater was awarded a 1-year contract to “care for paupers at $2.00 per week.”  In Fall of 1860, the original poor farm was sold and a new one purchased by the county.  In Jan. 1863, the poor farm was again sold.  The care of paupers was given over to each Township.  Individuals contracted with the township to keep paupers during this time.  The rate was $2 -$2.50 per pauper per week. A new poor farm was purchased and a building erected in 1866.  While a source of interesting information, this timeline also prompts many questions.  Were the pauper care contracts awarded on the basis of the lowest bid?  Did the paupers do the actual farm labor?  Did poor or orphan children become child farm laborers?  Was there any kind of oversight to make sure that the paupers were treated humanely by those who bought the contracts?  Was the establishment of the poor farm prompted by economic concerns, concern over the welfare of paupers or both?


Next, I looked through three of the books provided by the AHTC 2008 Summer Institute.  In the first book, Women in Antebellum Reform by Lori Ginzberg, I learned more about early nineteenth century views on poverty. “The notion that charity should only aid those among the poor who were not to blame for their condition has long influenced American attitudes toward poverty and its reform….In the early nineteenth century, reformers “discovered” that direct financial relief led to laziness and sinful behavior…To reform these evils, writers and government officials argued, the poor needed to be removed from their home environments, taught the moral standards attributed to the more fortunate classes, and trained for employment suitable to their station”  Poorhouses, almshouses and poor farms were the logical outcome of these attitudes. 


In American Reformers 1815-1860, author Ronald G. Walters explains that eighteenth-century almshouses were rare and served as “places of last resort for the most helpless of the poor…In the early nineteenth century, however, the almshouse became  a major way for governments to deal with indigents.” Among the virtues of the nineteenth century poorhouse, in the minds of its proponents, were both its low cost and the feeling that the stigma of the poorhouse discouraged the “unworthy” from seeking public assistance.  However, problems with this approach surfaced quickly.  Walters writes, “As reformers learned more about the dependent classes, they came to see differences and to realize that even the best almshouses and prisons were not beneficial for every inmate.  The insane and children, in particular, had a difficult time when thrown in with hardened rogues.  Concerned men and women considered what sort of treatment might be more appropriate for them.  The answer was new, special asylums.”  Certainly these changing attitudes and reform movements were felt in central Illinois.   At what point did Champaign County begin to separate the “classes” and establish separate living situations for children, the elderly, the mentally ill and the poor?    


I found additional information about poorhouses in Illinois in the book, Asylum, Prison and Poorhouse by David Lightner.  In February of 1847, Dorothea Dix wrote a series of essays which were published in a Springfield, IL newspaper.  These essays detailed her trips throughout much of Central Illinois and described conditions in the prisons and poorhouses she visited.  Although she did not mention any visit to Champaign County, she does describe eight other poor houses she visited in the region.  While she did find conditions in some poorhouses to be better than others, most often conditions were very poor indeed.  Of her visit to Sangamon County, which housed both prisoners and paupers in one building, she wrote,” To be poverty-stricken, friendless, sick and suffering, then, in Sangamon County, leads the helpless victim of misfortune- not to decent, homely yet comfortable asylum, respectable and well-ordered, but- to the injury in daily to associate with criminals, and to become, even more than they, an outcast from the sympathies and recognition of the community.”  The poorhouses she described housed a mix of men and women, children and the elderly, the ill, and “the insane and idiots”.  While the previously mentioned timeline suggests that Champaign County did not have a poorhouse at the time Dorothea’s writings, one was established several years later.  Were the conditions in Champaign’s poorhouse similar to those described in other Illinois Counties?


At least a partial answer to the last question was found in some documents I was able to access from the online collection at the University of Illinois.  A series of reports by the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities of the State of Illinois, published between 1870 and 1909 provided some statistics and details of visits to state institutions.  Visits to county poorhouses were included in the reports.  In the 1870, the Champaign County Almshouse was described briefly as, “…in good condition, of sufficient capacity and well kept. It is one of the best poorhouses in the state.” 


The report of 1882 contains more details and less praise, “The almshouse was found to be in generally good condition, but the rooms of the male inmates and their beds and bedding were not very clean.  Some of the inmates were sleeping on the floor.”  This report also describes the people living in the poorhouse in 1882, “The number of paupers present was forty-three, of whom six were children, four insane, two idiots, one blind, one bedridden, and four cripples. The average number is about thirty-two.”  (It is interesting at this point to remember that ten children were offered for adoption in the 1883 news ad which was discussed earlier.)  The condition of the “insane department” is described as “very bad.” 


A report from 1884 describes repairs and improvements which have been made at the Champaign County Poor Farm and notes that, “the number of inmates present was thirty-nine…of whom nine were insane, one an idiot, one blind and three were children under sixteen years of age.”  The quarters for the insane are, “much improved since the last visit, much tidier and the odor not so offensive.”


In the report from 1886, the women’s quarters are found to be in good order, the men’s quarters were not very clean and quarters for the insane are, “odorous on account of the filthy occupants.”  However the report goes on to say, “The inmates generally were cleanly, well-clothed, and well-fed.”  Furthermore, “The farm was in excellent condition and the crops never looked better.”   There are no details offered about the number or types of people housed at that visit. 


In my attempt to learn more about the Champaign County Poor Farm, I find that I am left with many more questions than answers.  I believe there is a very good reason to keep looking for these answers.  As educators in Champaign-Urbana, we work with children living in poverty on a daily basis.   One effective way to interest our students in learning about the Reform movement, would be to present this information through the lens of the life of child in a poorhouse. While I do not yet have enough information to put together an effective lesson plan on this topic, I feel certain that with more time to locate and go through resources, such a lesson plan could be created.  Students enjoy learning about other children their own age, particularly children who have lived in their own town.  For older students, there are many though provoking questions that could be asked about attitudes toward poverty, how our community has treated the poor in the past and how they are treated today.  One very relevant example is the current homeless tent camp controversy in our community.  The citizens and local governments of Champaign and Urbana continue to struggle to find the best ways to support the poor.  We know this is a problem that will not go away. Perhaps one of our students, exposed to this complex topic by a thoughtful, well-prepared instructor, (who had, of course, attended the AHTC workshop J)  will become the next great reformer.