The Will Carleton Poorhouse

The history of the Will Carleton Poorhouse on Wolcott Street is a tale of two converging stories.  The first strand comes from the sad fact that all societies have citizens who aren't able to meet their own needs and whose families are either unable or unwilling to take care of them.  In Hillsdale County there was originally a County Farm and Poorhouse near the intersection of Bacon Street and Spring Street.  Lorenzo Dowd, age 27, and his wife Ada, age 24, were employed on November 27, 1849, to take charge of the Poorhouse at $20 per month.  They came with their five month old daughter Ida.  In 1850 there were twelve paupers listed in the Federal Census as living at the Poorhouse.  Their ages were 10, 12, 12, 14, 24, 35, 40, 54, 72, 75, 76 and 80.

This is where the second strand of the story comes in.  In March of 1853, Isaac Vandenbergh was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors.  In October of 1853, the Committee on the Poor Farm again reversed itself and urged the necessity of building a new County House for the poor, as the one then in use was "wholly unfit for the purposes used" (again!).  At that time Vandenbergh was appointed to a building committee and charged with presenting plans and specifications for a new Poorhouse at the next session.  They wanted a two-story building of stone and mortar with a cellar.  They were willing to pay $1000 and a further $1000 if necessary.  It just so happened that Isaac Vandenberg, member of the Board of Supervisors and on the committee to build a new Poorhouse, was willing to sell to the County his house, which met all the specifications.  On January 13, 1854, Vandenbergh offered to the County this proposition:  He would exchange the farm on which he lived (on the current Wolcott Street) for $2000 plus he would be given the current Poor Farm on Bacon and Spring.  He wanted $1000 down, with the other $1000 paid in "one or six annual installments with annual accrued interest."  And he wanted it all done by April 1.  This was a situation where a little transparency was called for!

Isaac Vandenbergh's history portrays him as a hard-working and ambitious man.  He and his wife Sarah settled in Hillsdale in the summer of 1846.  He was a real estate speculator, an inn keeper and a farmer.  In 1851 he was appointed marshall of Hillsdale Village.  At that time he bought from Henry Waldron 113 acres on Wolcott Street, where the current Poor House now sits.  He employed George Wheaton, who was a stone mason, as the builder of the cobblestone house he and his wife wanted to have.

George Wheaton came to Jonesville late in the 1840's from New York.  He was one of the builders of the Hillsdale College buildings and the second Courthouse, called the "old stone pile."  He built three cobblestone houses, two on State Road in addition to Vandengurgh's house.  Cobblestone houses are examples of folk art that flourished between the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Civil War.  Many were built by the Erie Canal masons when their work on the Canal was finished.

To build a cobblestone house was to commit to a labor intensive effort that may have taken years.  For instance, it took three years to gather the stones for the house on State Road that originally belonged to the William Kirby family and later was owned by the Robert Keefer family.  The stringent size requirement for stones for the house, as opposed to an ordinary stone house, made the effort staggering.  The basic stone house had stones of different sizes fitted together in a random pattern.  A cobblestone house called for stones of almost the same size.  They were arranged in neat horizontal rows held together with sharp cement V ridges that were formed with a trowel.  Sometimes women and children would help with the gathering of stones and sometimes there would be a "bee" at the farm of the family planning to build a cobblestone house.  The stones were sized by passing them through a handmade board with holes called a "sizing board."  The cobblestones were a facade.  The rejected stones were mortared roughly together to act as the realwall.  Visitors to the Will Carleton Poorhouse will notice the depth of the windows, which flare out on the inside to provide better light.  A peek into the second floor storage rooms will show various sized rocks that are about two feet thick.

Isaac and Sarah Vandenbergh, with their sons Charles and Frank, moved into their new cobblestone house in 1853.  In 1854, through the arrangement with the County Supervisors, the Vandenbergs moved to the original County Farm (where they presumably build a new home).  The paupers moved into the cobblestone house vacated by the Vanderberghs.  A man identified as Mr. Wright and his wife were engaged to be the Poor Keepers in October of 1854.  What can clearly be inferred from the County Supervisors' Minutes is that their care of the paupers (and probably the care given by some of the other Poor Keepers) wasn't always what it should have been.  While the "farm was in a good state of cultivation and had been managed exceedingly well," the state of the paupers was less positive.  On January 4, 1855 it was "unanimously resolved that the Superintendents of the Poor be instructed to cause such alteration to be made in the arrangement of Matters at the Poor House that idiots and insane persons may be Kept separate from the other Paupers.  And that the Rooms in which the Paupers of all descriptions are kept be cleansed and hereafter be kept free from dirt.  And that the children Idiots and Insane persons be properly taken care of, and provided with all necessaries for their health and comfort.  And that they be requested, forthwith to remove the present Keeper and Employ some other person who may carry out the foregoing improvements."

Part of the Poorhouse burned in March, 1867 and the cobblestone house on Wolcott, along with the land and much of the crops already growing, were sold to David Forbes, a former Poor Keeper, for $4900.   In the 1880's the house was purchased by the Wolcott family, where it remained through successive generations until 1945.  The street name, of course, comes from them.

The paupers were sent to different houses on and around Short Street, which no longer exists.  Next they were moved to a hodgepodge of houses on Cambria Road.  Finally, those houses were removed and a brick building was built in their place for use as a poorhouse.  When the building was no longer used for paupers it became the original Medical Care Facility and the remains in the graves at the back of house were moved Lakeview Cemetery.  The original brick building still stands and is currently divided into apartments for rent.  


JoAnne P. Miller