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Wayne Independent - Honesdale, PA
  • The Poor Farm

  • The welfare system in the United States had its beginning during the Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a form of emergency relief for those left destitute by the economic crisis. Prior to that time help for the poor was provided in various ways. In rare cases, other family members rose to t...
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    The welfare system in the United States had its beginning during the Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a form of emergency relief for those left destitute by the economic crisis. Prior to that time help for the poor was provided in various ways. In rare cases, other family members rose to the occasion and took less fortunate relatives in and cared for them but few families were financially able to do this.
    Many communities had an elected official called the Overseer of the Poor (sometimes called the Poor Master) who used a stipulated portion of tax money to provide food, fuel, and clothing which allowed the indigents to continue to live in their own homes. In other cases the individuals who could not support themselves or their families were “auctioned off.”
    Local officials provided tax money to members of the community who made the lowest bid to house, feed, clothe and provide medical care to the pauper.
    If the pauper was able-bodied the home owner also got the use of his labor for free for a specific period, usually a year. It was actually a form of indentured servitude and far too often resulted in abuse or mistreatment of the pauper. In many cases the pauper received little or no benefit from the money paid.
    An alternative way to deal with the poor was the establishment of Poor Houses or Poor Farms. Communities began to realize that a more economical and humane solution was to set aside a small parcel of land with a farmhouse where paupers could live and raise some of their own food to reduce the burden on the local tax funds. Such was the case with the Poor Farm in Wayne County.
    The April 17, 1862 issue of the Wayne County Herald reported that citizens of Honesdale and Texas Township met at the Wayne County Courthouse to discuss the expediency of erecting a poor house. In September of 1862 a farm with an old wood frame house in Berlin Township was purchased for use as the Honesdale and Texas Township Poor Farm. Poor Masters took charge of the poor in the other boroughs and townships in the county. In 1863 John Conklin was hired as the superintendent. Male residents who were physically able worked on the farm and the women helped the matron with housekeeping duties. It was not unusual for entire families to become residents of the Poor Farm.
    The Poor Farm was by no means the Public Workhouse of Charles Dickens’ novels.
    Page 2 of 2 - The Public Workhouse of Dickens’ day was a place where those who were unable to support themselves were housed but the similarity ends there. Life in an English workhouse was intended to be harsh to deter the able-bodied poor and ensure that only the really destitute would be admitted. The authorities in charge of some workhouses attempted to make a profit by the labor of the overworked and underfed inmates. Tasks assigned to the inmates included crushing stones, bone crushing to produce fertilizer and picking oakum using a large metal nail or spike. Oakum is loosely twisted hemp that was impregnated with tar used in caulking the seams of wooden sailing ships. The spike was used to separate the fiber from the tar. Because of this, workhouses were often known as a “spike”. For an idea of life in an English Public Workhouse it is interesting to note that bone crushing was abolished in workhouses after 1845 because starving paupers were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were grinding to suck out the marrow.
    Life at the Honesdale and Texas Township Poor Farm was far from ideal but, for the most part, inmates were treated with compassion. The State of Pennsylvania regularly sent inspectors to ensure that the state standards regarding the treatment and living conditions of the inmates were maintained. Among the standards specified were the items of clothing provided, the opportunities for bathing, adequate bedding, etc. An area of the farm was set aside as a burial ground for the indigent and in 1917 the wooden farmhouse was replaced by a brick structure.
    In 1945, the county commissioners purchased the property from Honesdale Borough and Texas Township for $10,000 and it became the Wayne County Institution District. In time, due to changing government policies and the welfare system, there was no longer a need for the Poor Farm and the county began leasing the house. In 1992 it was used as a community rehabilitation residence for teenagers and operated by the Sisters of Good Shepherd at Lourdsmont.
    Remember July is Membership Month. Individual memberships are reduced to $30 and Family memberships are reduced to $45 for this month.
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