Effingham County's forgotten poor buried at airport


The Effingham Daily News                                                                                            January  2002
     Not too long ago, in a time before Social Security and Welfare, America's less fortunate were locked away from public view in county poor farms.
     Every day pilots guide their modern airplanes down the runway at the Effingham County Memorial Airport, oblivious to the fact that they are passing the unmarked graves of Effingham County's forgotten poor.
     Few people today know much of anything about the Effingham County Poor Farm, which for nearly 100 years housed the county's indigent. Located on the land that later became the airport, the Poor Farm and its unmarked cemetery are a chapter of Effingham County's history that has been largely ignored.
     "It's hard to find any information about the Poor Farm," said Eleanor Bounds of the Effingham Genealogical Society. "It's like nobody wanted to talk about it back then."


     The story of the Poor Farm begins in the town of Ewington, which has very nearly ceased to exist today. The town was situated about three miles west of Effingham, and the S-curve overpass where U.S. 40 crosses the Conrail railroad tracks has covered up much of the original town.
     Ewington was the original county seat of Effingham County and in its hey-day the town boasted 200 residents, several shops, taverns, a school, a doctor's office, a blacksmith and, of course, the county courthouse.
     In 1860 the Illinois Central Railroad was built and, wisely anticipating the importance of placing the town along the railroad, the Effingham County Board of Supervisors voted to move the county seat to Effingham, which at that time was smaller than Ewington is today.
     Practically the entire population of Ewington pulled up stakes and moved the three miles down the road to Effingham, and most of the wooden buildings of the town were dragged with them.
     Being one of the only brick structures in town, the old courthouse remained in Ewington and in the county's possession. Two years later, in 1862, the board of supervisors voted to turn the old Ewington courthouse into the county's first Poor House.


      In 1835 and 1839, the Illinois legislature followed the example of most other states and passed laws authorizing counties to establish poor farms for the care of paupers. With a small population of rugged pioneer-type folk, Effingham County would not have a need for a poor farm until many years later.
     Prior to the establishment of the Poor House, and later the Poor Farm, Effingham County's paupers were sold to the lowest bidder as indentured servants. The person with the winning bid would receive an allowance from the county for care of the pauper usually around $2 per week and in exchange the pauper would be used for labor. This system of near-slavery came to end in 1862 when the Poor House was established.
      In order to be entitled to stay at the Poor House or Farm, a person had to go before the judge in circuit court and take a "pauper's oath." This oath involved swearing that the pauper owned less than $10 in worldly goods and that they had lived in the county for at least one year.
     The pauper also had to declare his or her pauperhood to the judge and plead for assistance. This humiliating experience would often leave the pauper with a life-long stigma. The pioneering spirit of 19th century America carried with it a belief that all one needed to be successful was personal initiative and those who failed to make it were looked upon with disdain.
     Paupers ranged from young orphans to the elderly and infirm. Many paupers were physically or mentally disabled and unable to earn a living for themselves. Most had no family to care for them and turned to the Poor House or Farm as a last resort.
     A number of unwed mothers also resided at the Poor House with their children in the early days, but around 1900 a law was passed forbidding the care of children in Poor Houses.

The Poor Farm

     By the 1890's, the number of paupers had outgrown the Poor House in Ewington and the board of supervisors decided to move the operation to 16 acres of land in Watson Township which is part of the airport today.
      Two buildings were constructed on the site: a large two-story greathouse for the paupers to stay in and a small one-story bungalow which was the home of the Overseer of Poor and his family. At any given time, the Poor Farm would house between five and 20 paupers.
     Those paupers who were physically able would work the land or do household chores. Sometimes they would be rented out to area farmers for daily labor. Some paupers, however, were too seriously disabled to work.
     Paupers were designated as "inmates" and they were prohibited from leaving the poor farm without supervision. This kept them out of sight and out of mind. Most county residents at the time simply did not like to think about the unfortunate paupers.
     However, by all accounts, the paupers were well treated at the Poor Farm. They received medical attention from a physician appointed by the county, they were well fed, and county ordinance instructed that they be treated humanely by the overseer.
     Effingham resident Marilyn Burford has a distant cousin in her family tree, Nancy Wells, who lived at the Poor Farm in the early 1900's. Burford said Wells had been orphaned at an early age and was raised by her great-grandparents on their farm near Dieterich.
      Burford recalls her aunt telling her of cousin Nancy, who had a club foot and may have been mentally retarded.
     "My aunt told me that, when her great-grandparents were alive she went to visit and they told her that Nancy lived in a cave out behind the house and that she smoked a pipe and looked really scary," Burford said.
     After Wells' great-grandparents died, she had no where to go. So she became a pauper and spent the rest of her life at the Poor Farm. The 1920 census record lists Wells as a Poor Farm inmate at the age of 68. It is believed that when she died she was buried in the Poor Farm Cemetery.

Welfare cheats?

    Just as in modern times, the 19th and early 20th Centuries had their share of stories of relatively well-to-do citizens cheating the system to collect benefits intended for the poor.
     Some county poor farms have stories of wads of money found stuffed inside inmate's mattresses, or of wealthy citizens hiding out from their families in the poor farm. Effingham County's Poor Farm has the tale of Jacob Sleegar.
     Although he resided at the Poor Farm for only one day,  Sleegar's expulsion from the Poor Farm was spectacular enough that it inspired a front page article in the Effingham Record.

     Sleegar, 75, of Centerville had come into Loy Prairie in the southern part of the county to buy horses and do some general trading in September of 1915. He had arrived in a ramshackle wagon pulled by an old horse, which died upon his arrival.
     After the death of his horse,  Sleegar reportedly became ill and laid around in his wagon for several days until concerned neighbors took him to the Poor Farm for care. The good samaritans described Sleegar as mentally unbalanced. He became extremely upset about being taken from his wagon and ranted about money.
     The next day, Poor Farm supervisor Erastmus Norris and others retrieved Sleegar's wagon and proceeded to search it. They must have been quite surprised to discover "enough money to fill a coffee sack."
     More than $600 in gold coins; a large quantity of silver including about 2,000 dimes; 3,846 $1 bills; a single $500 bill and other miscellaneous money was recovered from the wagon and taken to Effingham State Bank where county treasurer S.L. James added it all up in the presence of witnesses. The grand total: $6,312.50 when adjusted for inflation, that's well over $100,000 in today's money.
     Needless to say, Mr. Sleeger was immediately removed from the Poor Farm and taken to St. Anthony's Hospital in Effingham, where he was later picked up by his wife and children.

Forgotten graves

     Many paupers were elderly and infirm, and therefore many paupers lived out the last of their days at the Poor Farm. Those who died were given a proper burial by the overseer in the Poor Farm Cemetery.
     The cemetery is located on the old Poor Farm property, south of where the airport's runway is located today, in a shady corner of trees alongside the Salt Creek branch.
     No one knows anymore how many paupers were buried in the Poor Farm Cemetery. Only a few records exist from the 19th Century, and those document only about 15 graves. Considering that the cemetery continued to be used well into the 20th Century, the actual number of people buried there must be much higher.
      The death of a pauper went largely unnoticed by those outside of the Poor Farm. After all, if there was anyone who cared for that person, he or she would probably not have been in the Poor Farm to begin with. Word of a pauper's death rarely even made the pages of either of Effingham's two newspapers.
     On Feb. 22 of 1895, The Effingham Democrat made an unusual but brief mention regarding one pauper's passing: "An old gentleman by the name of Grant died at the poor farm Wednesday, he had been a cripple for many years."
     Courthouse documents indicate that the man in question was John Grant of Mound Township, who was buried the day after he died by Jacob Young, keeper of the poor.
     Headstones were originally placed at some of the pauper's graves, but as early as 1896 the names of three-quarters of the cemetery inhabitants had been forgotten. By 1940 only a few nameless rough stones remained and today only a few wild rose bushes mark the ground where Effingham County's nameless poor lay buried.
     Recently, members of the Effingham Genealogical Society tramped through the brush to survey the cemetery. Teresa Wente used divining rods to seek the location of graves.
     The diving rods are carried at arm's length parallel to each other. When the holder passes over ground that has been disturbed, the rods come together on their own. Using this method, Wente divined the location of more than 60 graves aligned lengthwise in neat rows in the cemetery.
     "We had a guy come to one of our meetings and tell us about them, so I thought I'd try it," Wente said. "I had tried (the rods) out at my dad's farm where I knew there were graves so I knew it worked. I was pretty surprised."
     The exact number of paupers buried at the Poor Farm Cemetery, and the names of most of them, will probably never be known.

End of an era

     The stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression sounded the death knell for the poor farm system. With America's economy in a shambles, record numbers of people were unemployed and in need of assistance.
     Effingham County's Poor Farm, like other poor farms across the nation, could not handle the influx of needy citizens and legislators were forced to find new solutions.
      In 1931, the Illinois general assembly passed a new law saying that the care of the poor would be the responsibility of individual townships, rather than of the county. This act effectively ended the institution of the county poor farm, and on December 10, 1931, the Effingham County Poor Farm ceased to be a part of county government.
     An auction was held the following February and the Poor Farm's livestock, machinery and other equipment was all auctioned off. The Effingham Democrat reported that a large crowd turned out for the auction. Among the other items auctioned off were 10 head of cattle, two mules, two horses and 125 leghorn chickens.

     The Poor Farm did not close down, however. Instead, the county board of supervisors privatized the operation. The property was rented to Poor Farm overseer Erastmus Norris who agreed to continue housing paupers for the rate of $14.50 per month, to be paid by the township the pauper was from.
     Then, as the Depression worsened in the mid-1930's, the federal government began to get into the business of caring for the poor directly. Congress set up the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act, and in 1935 the Social Security Act was passed.
     Direct federal government assistance to the impoverished made poor houses obsolete and gradually, one by one, they closed their doors. Effingham County's Poor Farm was torn down in 1945 when the land was given over to construct the airport.

Fading into the past

     Today nothing remains of the Poor Farm except the crumbling, overgrown foundation of the great house. The nameless dead lie in their unmarked graves, undisturbed except for the occasional roar of an airplane.
     But the yellowing pages of county records still hold a few clues to the lives paupers lived in 19th Century Effingham County. Census roles list the names and ages of Poor Farm residents. The members of the Effingham Genealogical Society continue to collect information on the Poor Farm and its residents.
     Though the memories are quickly fading into the past, it can be certain that the Poor Farm and the paupers who lived there will never be completely forgotten.

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