MERCER COUNTY POOR FARM AND INFIRMARY.

CONTRIBUTED BY L. B. DOUGHTY.

Among the public institutions of the county, the Poor Farm and Infirmary are specially worthy of mention, for they are a standing monument, evincing the practical generosity of our citizens. But in our search for material for this chapter, we have found the records so vague, incomplete and unsatisfactory, that we almost despaired of finding sufficient data to make our history of this institution complete or interesting.

From William Wilmerton, Esq., of Preemption township, and Tyler McWhorter, of Mercer, we have obtained some interesting facts, which will help us to, in some measure, fill the gaps we find in the public records.

For years after the organization of our county, those unable to support themselves, and whose families or friends were unable to support them, were cared for by the overseers of the poor of the several townships, who were appointed by the county commissioners. Sometimes they were kept by contract; sometimes they did what they could for themselves, and were partially provided for by the overseers. In many cases merchants provided them with the necessaries of life, taking their chances of having the bills allowed by the board. In all cases the county was expected to pay the bills for their maintenance, whether kept on contract, furnished by order of the overseer, or through pity (or cupidity) of the merchant.

At each recurring session of the commissioners' court, pauper bills increased in number and grew in magnitude, and more and more care was necessary, and was exercised, to sift out and pay only those which were for the necessaries of life, cutting off and rejecting any and all which bear the least taint of suspicion. For instance, some bills presented would, perhaps, show that sugar enough had been furnished to a pauper in three months' time, to have lasted him or his family, for a year, and this would raise a suspicion in the minds of the commissioners, that perhaps something else than sugar had been furnished— an article for which it was known payment would be refused. Investigation would follow, which would generally result in the rejection of a part of the bill.

We do not wish to make any invidious references, hut esquire "Wilmerton related a story to us, the other day, which comes to our mind in recording the above. Some years ago he received a large number of bills from a house in Rock Island , for collection, upon parties living in Pre-emption and adjoining townships. One of these particularly attracted his attention, owing to the frequent charges for "headache medicine " by the quart, half gallon and gallon ; this item occurring with alarming regularity, showing each and every visit to the city of the good old farmer against whom it was made. The 'squire was well acquainted with him, and had never known of his being subject to severe attacks of this disease, and his curiosity was aroused to know what this remedy was, and on his first visit to Rock Island he asked the maker of the bill to enlighten him. The dealer laughed, and for answer beckoned him into a back room and silently pointed to a barrel labeled "whisky." "Headache medicine" looked better on the bills ; but like the " sugar " on the pauper bills, it looked suspicious.

Again, most of the adjoining counties had provided poor-houses, and refused longer to support indigent persons unless they would become inmates thereof; and while there were many who were not too proud to receive their entire subsistence from the count}-, there were few who would willingly "go to the poor-house," as they had a false idea that this course was degrading. Rather than go where they could not only be better cared for, but would have an opportunity to do what they could for their own maintenance, they prepared to emigrate to some county not possessed of this bugbear, and not a few crossed the borders into our county and soon became a county charge.

Under these circumstances, the commissioners in 1853 (E. Gilmore, Jr., county judge, and William Wilmerton and John Glancey, associate county justices of the peace), after much deliberation, decided to purchase a farm for the county, upon which might be erected suitable buildings for an infirmary. Mr. Wilmerton soon found what he thought would be a suitable farm, and a special meeting of the com­ missioners was held at the court-house in Keithsburg, September 20, 1853, which is the first record we can find relating to tbe subject of'a poor-house. At this meeting they ratified a provisional contract made by Mr. Wilmerton with John I. Clark and Gersham Yannatta, whereby the latter sold to the county 110 acres of land lying in the S. £ of See. 33, T. 15, and in the K £ of Sec. 4, T. 14, both in Range 3, W. of the 4th P.M., the latter being timber land. The consideration was $1,400, and two orders were drawn at this meeting, for STOO each, in favor of Clark and Yannatta. The deed was made September 23, 1853, and acknowledged before W. A. Bridgford, J.P., of Millersburg, and was recorded January 12, 1854, by T. B. Cabeen, Recorder, in Book M of Deeds, pages 307 and 308.

March 8, 1854. the county farm was leased to Joseph G. Gilmore for one year, but the terms of the lease are not given in the record. A part of the contract, however, was that he should keep a pauper and his wife, named Golden; and we find'that at the March session (1855) of the board of supervisors he was allowed §8.50 as balance due him on the contract.

From the minutes of the June session of the board, of supervisors (1854), the first session after the adoption of township organization, we copy the following order:

"It is ordered by the board, that Graham Lee, Elisha Miles, and Tyler McWhorter be and are appointed a committee to examine the condition of the county farm and its requirements, with respect to accommodating all the paupers of the county."

In September of the same year, Graham Lee was appointed agent for the county to lease the farm, etc.

In March, 1856, Mr. Gilmore was paid $58.50 as balance due him on contract or lease. At the same term the board unanimously pass a resolution recommending to their successors the urgent necessity of improving the farm, so that it would " accommodate all the paupers in the county," this action being suggested by the large number of pauper claims presented at that session.

At a special term in June, 1856, Graham Lee, Thomas Likely, and Tyler McWhorter were appointed a committee to prepare and report a plan for a poor-house, and as nearly as possible the cost of the same. They made their report at the same session, which was accepted, and McWhorter, Lee, and N". P. Partridge were appointed to make a design, advertise for and receive bids, and contract for the erection of the house.

Said commissioners reported at the September meeting that they had received, on the 28th of August, five bids: two for brick and three for stone buildings; that four of the bids had ranged from $4,200, to $4,600; that the fifth was for $3,400 for a stone building; that this latter figure was deemed reasonable, but the bidder, Mr. Ralph Growe, required partial payment in advance, and it was necessary to provide funds before closing the contract Accordingly an arrangement was made with the drainage commissioner to borrow money from the swamp land fund. That the first payment had been made, and the work of excavating the cellar commenced; that owing to the failure of the drainage commissioner to make collections, they were unable to get money for the second payment, whereby the work had been greatly hindered and delayed. They request the board to sanction their action, and to decide upon some definite system of managing the farm in future; both of which requests we presume were granted, but we can.

find no record'of any action beyond receiving and recording their report. This, however, was the last year the farm was leased, as a whole, a steward or superintendent having since been employed.

In March, 1857, Mr. J. G. Gilmore's lease terminated, and this time he owed the county 0124.50. The county bought of him fourteen acres of land adjoining the poor-farm for $324.50, getting one year's time on the $200 balance, at ten per cent. They also appropriated $1,300 for prosecuting the work on the infirmary; authorized the com­missioners to borrow $800 of the swamp land fund, and made provis­ions for the repayment of all sums heretofore borrowed from the fund.

In September, 1858, a committee was appointed to visit the poor- farm and report. They suggested that the "steward" system be abol­ ished, and that a competent man be employed to superintend the farm, under the direction of a standing committee in regard to improvements, purchase of stock, etc. This report was adopted, and a committee appointed who made a contract with Humphrey Eiddell, at $350 per year, his term commencing March 8, 1859. Mr. Riddell was re-em­ployed from year to year for nine successive years, which fact attests his eminent fitness for the position, which was recognized by the board in an increase of his salary from time to time until instead of $350 they paid him $500 per year. This was, of course, in addition to the board and keeping of himself and family.

While upon the subject we will give the list of stewards and super­ intendents in their order, so far as can be ascertained: Joseph G. Gilmore leased and managed the farm the first three years. It was then placed under the charge of committees, as before mentioned, who employed stewards to care for the inmates, etc. While the building was in progress, Tyler McWhorter, as chairman of the building committee, had the oversight of the farm, and Justus Southwell and Win. Clark held the stewardship under his administration. Then came Mr. Riddell for nine years; Samuel H. Darby shire from 1868 to 1875; John "W. Dihel from 1875 to 1880; and from February, 1880, to the present time, Mr. J. McWillis, who is now holding the position for the third term. His salary is $600, which is at least $400 less than should be paid.

The building is well arranged and will accommodate comfortably about thirty inmates. A commodious wing accommodates the superin­ tendent's family, and a frame kitchen was added to the building some years ago. What is known as the "old house" was put in tolerably decent repair, and is used for sleeping apartments when the main building is overcrowded, but it cannot be so used in extreme cold weather.

The farm is provided with ample barns, granaries and tool houses; is well stocked with horses, cattle and hogs; has a large orchard and an abundance of small fruits.

The inmates are all required to perform such labor as they are able or fitted for; the women doing their own cooking, washing, ironing and chamber work, and a part of their own sewing; while the men work in the fields or about the barns. Discipline is necessarily very strict, but is seldom severe. Among them are the weak-minded, idiotic and insane; and for the latter special provisions in the way of cages or barred windows and doors are a necessity.

The position of superintendent is one of great responsibility and of constant trials, vexations and watchfulness, and it is to the honor of each and all who have held the position that they have served year after year in that capacity. That any one of them has served one or more years to the entire satisfaction of everybody could not be expected; that each has left the farm in better condition than he found it is most highly commendable.

Since the completion of the building the number of inmates has averaged about thirty per year. The largest number ever upon the books at one time was fifty-four, during the administration of S. H. Darbyshire; and every available resource of the farm and infirmary were then taxed to the utmost.

Among the present inmates are the following, who have been there for eight years or more, with date of entry: Dedimus Black, April 5, 1859; Mrs. Bang, December 19,1861; Logan Smithers, June 7,1864; John Hall, December 30, 1865; Norman Powers, May 12, 1866; Sarah Albee, August 17, 1869; Elizabeth Krouse. October 2, 1S71; Richard Bell, May 24, 1874.

Whenever children are admitted it is the rule to advertise at once for homes for them, and where possible secure their adoption by good families. Where this is not possible they are allowed to go and work for their board, or board and clothing, owing to their capabilities.

February 1, 1865, forty acres adjoining the farm were purchased .of John Dellett, and on March 1, 1882, 200 acres were purchased of Peter Blue. For which they paid the sum of 810,000 cash. Small timber lots in Sec. 4, T. 14, K. 3, have been purchased at different times, and the farm now comprises 395 acres. One man is hired by the county, in addition to the superintendent, and what he cannot work advantageously with the resources at his command, is leased on good terms to responsible tenants.


The farm is becoming nearer sulf-supporting year by year, and has proven from the first a paying investment, to leave out all other considerations. It is true that it has not put an end to a deluge of pauper bills from the several townships at each recurring session of the board, but it has largely reduced them in number and amounts asked for, and the bills receive a close scrutiny and thorough investigation before being allowed. But so long as supervisors are allowed to assist paupers in their respective townships, at public expense, these bills must be paid; and some of our supervisors seem to think then*townships will be disgraced if they are represented by an inmate in the infirmary, and to prevent this will issue orders and indorse bills that aggregate much more than it would cost to keep the pauper where he or she most properly belong, at the county farm

In addition to the gentlemen mentioned as furnishing data for the foregoing, we are indebted to county clerk C. C. "Wordin for kind assistance in examining the records in his office, and a long, though fruitless, search for some reports which would have proven valuable could they have been found; to superintendent J. McWillis for like assistance, and to.numerous others for the pains taken in answering our numerous inquiries. In the name of the readers of this history we earnestly thank each and all.

History of Mercer and Henderson Counties-1882

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