The Rest of the Paupers' Story

The Minutes of the Hillsdale County Supervisors (now called the County Commissioners) are a treasure trove of fascinating information. Of particular interest is the data brought to the meetings by the three County Supervisors who were elected Superintendents of the Poor and given the responsibility for dealing with those who couldn't care for themselves.


Contrary to what most people think, the house on the County Farm wasn't the only source of help for needy people. Some received "temporary" assistance. This often occurred in their own towns. Sometimes they were financially supported in their own homes, as was the case with the Reynolds family in Jonesville in 1858. This cost the taxpayers of Hillsdale County "over One Hundred Dollars," a fact that appalled the Supervisors. In other situations a family would be paid by the county to take in a pauper. It's a good bet that those housed in private homes were expected to "labor," while those at the Poor Farm were not as likely to be able to do so. Some of the families that took in paupers appear to have had other motivations than just the desire to help. In March 1857 "a claim of Nathaniel Howard for $325 for taking care of Jane Morr for 155 days was presented." The Supervisors were having none of it and agreed to pay Mr. Howard $50. "Foreign" paupers, those passing through the county, were also helped, and in one case an elderly couple who had been at the County Farm for a year was given money to go to their son's home in Ticonderoga, NY (which, of course, relieved the county of the cost for their care). Occasionally the families of people at the County Farm contributed to their support.

It's clear that age and sickness often precipitated a move to the Poor Farm, as were the conditions of "insanity" and "idiocy." Probably the "insane" who were violent were sent to Kalamazoo to the Hospital for the Insane, the cost to keep them there paid by the county. Deaths at the Poor Farm and their causes were faithfully recorded, as were births. Were unwed mothers kicked out of their homes or hidden away by their families at the Poor Farm, or were these new mothers married and in financial distress? The Minutes don't say. The most heartbreaking residents were the children. The youngest pauper was five years old, and the 1880 Census lists Effie, Hattie and Albert Marsh, children who were "deserted."

From the beginning, references were made to the "Poor Farm" or "County Farm." Without a working farm, there would be insufficient finances to help the "indigent, aged, sick and infirm." An Overseer or Keeper was responsible for working the Poor Farm, sometimes with a hired hand. Occasionally the crops harvested were so abundant that some could be sold, with the profit going into the general fund of the County Supervisors. The Keeper's "lady," who also sometimes had a helper, was responsible for caring for the house and the paupers. 

By October 1852 the first County Farm, which was located somewhere other than on Wolcott Street, was producing multiple crops in large amounts, a fact that may have led to a proposal from Isaac VanDenBerg that didn't, in retrospect, cover him in glory.

In March 1853 VanDenBerg (as spelled in the Minutes) became a County Supervisor. Shortly after joining the Supervisors he was voted one of the three Superintendents of the Poor. They determined that a new house was needed for the paupers. On January 13,1854, VanDenBerg offered to exchange his farm and cobblestone home on the current Wolcott Street, into which he and his family had just moved and had yet to develop fully as a farm, for the current Poor Farm and $2,000 (a princely sum). The next day the County Supervisors inspected his home and voted to accept his offer. Within a year Isaac resigned from the County Supervisors, bringing into question the real reason he had joined them in the first place.  As the population of Hillsdale County increased, so did the number of paupers. After the Civil War, especially, many women who were left widows were unable to support themselves and needed help from the county. The County Supervisors struggled to meet their needs. Two votes to levy a tax for a new Farm failed, but it wasn't until the Wolcott Street house burned at the end of January 1867 that a replacement Farm was imperative. While the paupers lived crowded together in a small house on Short Street (near Stock's Mill) and the Keeper's family lived in another house across the street, the Supervisors debated. Several farms were offered by their owners, and in October 1867 the Supervisors accepted that of Mrs. Ellen Mott, located "one mile west and two and a quarter miles south of the Court House square, on the main road to Cambria Mills." In contrast to the lightning-fast manner in which Isaac VanDenBerg's farm and home were purchased, valuable time was wasted over the next several days as some Supervisors persistently asked for a reconsideration of other farms that had been rejected. In the end, Mrs. Mott's home was purchased. There was a large house on one side of the road where the women and the Keeper's family lived. Soon after taking possession, a two-story addition 30 feet by 17 feet was added to it. A small house across the road, about 20 feet square, was for the men, who took their meals in the larger house. 

If you look closely you can see a sign that says "County Home" on the front of the porch roof.

If you look closely you can see a sign that says "County Home" on the front of the porch roof.

Inevitably, the house on the County Farm degenerated, and an exposé published in the Hillsdale Standard in 1904 decried the outside toilets (especially for those who were bedridden), the lack of adequate heat, which necessitated that the inmates wear caps, gloves and overcoats to bed, and the crowded condition of the "old men's room," where a man died of "consumption" (tuberculosis) close enough to seven other men that he could infect them. Previous calls for a way to isolate the "idiots" and "insane" had been answered with a separate building called the "Fool House." In this, a man who didn't wear his boots to bed one freezing night woke up with frostbite on his feet. 

In 1905 a new brick building called Maplelawn was built on the Poor Farm grounds. It continued to be the County Farm for many years, with a cemetery on the premises for those who died. But a transformation upon being called a convalescent center altered its mission. No longer were "idiots," "insane" or children residents.

On April 1, 1970, the National Guard helped to move the 120 Maplelawn residents to the Hillsdale County Medical Care Facility and Rehabilitation Center on Mechanic Street. In the ensuing years the facility earned its reputation as a Five Star Nursing Home, ranked in the top 15 percent of the 442 medical care facilities in Michigan. It was a long journey from the original County Farm to Medical Care, where the motto is "The residents don't live in our facility, we work in their home."


JoAnne P. Miller