History: Local: Chapters XXXIII & XXXIV : Charitable and Benevolent Associations & Insane Hospital and Poor House : Bean's 1884 History of Montgomery Co, PA Contributed for use in USGenWeb Archives by Susan Walters USGENWEB NOTICE: Printing this file by non-commercial individuals and libraries is encouraged, as long as all notices and submitter information is included. Any other use, including copying files to other sites requires permission from the submitters PRIOR to uploading to any other sites. We encourage links to the state and county table of contents.




-In the early settlement of the country very little appears to have been done for the support of the poor. The population was sparse, labor was in demand, and the necessities of the people were limited to such few absolute requirements that pauperism could scarcely be said to exist. The Society of Friends, the Mennonites and the Dunkards have invariably supported their own unfortunate poor to the present time.

     During the whole of the colonial period, down to the erection of houses for the support and employment of the poor, they were maintained by their respective townships or districts. For this purpose two overseers were appointed for each by the judges of the County Courts. Their duties were to secure for those committed to their charge homes and employment at the most favorable rates. At March Sessions, 1736, a petition was sent to the court by residents of Hanover, stating that there was a dispute as to the line of Limerick, whereby they were compelled to support a cripple who had served his time and received his misfortune in the latter township, and that the same may be satisfactorily determined. The court ordered that as the bounds had not been fixed or recorded at the proper time, that both townships be at equal charges for his keep or maintenance, and the line be ascertained by the surveyor-general.

     An act was passed in 1771 that provided for the appointment of two overseers in every township by the justices at a special meeting to be held every year. The expense incurred in providing subsistence, shelter and employment for those whom misfortune bad rendered a burden to society was to be supplied out of the regular county rate. The overseers were responsible for the collection of the amount assessed and were required to pay over the moneys in their possession. A record was kept of the poor, and an order from a justice of the peace was necessary to become admitted to the list before assistance could be furnished. All having near relations who were paupers were compelled to support them, in their circumstances enabled them to do so. Those who liberated slaves were required to give bonds in the sum of thirty pounds each to keep harmless and to indemnify the overseers in case such negroes became a charge through sickness or otherwise and rendered incapable of supporting themselves. Among the duties of the overseers were applying the immediate wants, of families reduced to poverty, and in case of death to give them a decent burial. Those that could work were kept in employment among the farmers. On the formation of the county the justices of the court made the following appointments of overseers of the poor for the year 1785, which, however, does not embrace half the townships:

 Abington.- John Collum, Matthew Tyson
Cheltenham. -Alexander Loller, Benjamin Mather
Horsham. -William Lukens, John Lloyd
Lower Merion. -Jonathan Robeson, Lewis Thomas
Moreland. -Isaac Warner, Lawrence Sentman
Springfield. -John Piper, Christian Keysler
Montgomery. -Peter Martin, Edward Morgan
Plymouth. -John Meredith, Thomas Davis
Upper Salford. -Christian Hellerman, George Widemyer
Whitemarsh. -David Acuff, David Shoemaker.

     The subject of providing a home and a house of employment for the poor, instead of the former method of having them work or board around with those that would consent to receive them, began to receive attention soon after the formation of the county. The first move in this direction was the holding of a public meeting at the house of John Davis, at Norristown, January 23, 1801, on the expediency of petitioning the Legislature of the State for the of building a poorhouse for the use and benefit, of the destitute, in Montgomery. But little was done in the matter until March 10, 1806, when an act was passed authorizing the purchase of a farm and the erection thereon of suitable buildings for the purpose by the county. Subsequent acts were passed January 2, 1807, and December 22, 1810. The location of the place now began to attract attention, and a meeting was called and held in regard to the matter at Centre Square, Whitpain Township, and October 8, 1806. Strange to say, this was so managed as to recommend the purchase of the out-of-the-way site that was shortly afterwards chosen, -namely on the east-bank of the Schuylkill, in Upper Providence township, ten miles above Norristown, and all of said distance west of the centre of the county.

     The place was purchased from a person by the name of Cutwaltz, to which a few additional acres were added, making together about two hundred and sixty-five acres at a cost not ascertained. The directors, Ezekiel Rhoads, Henry Scheetz and Jacob Houck, gave notice that they would be on the premises May 28, 1807, at nine o'clock A.M., "to meet persons who may desire to erect by contract a house for the reception of the poor agreeably to a plan to be shown. The person or persons contracting to find all the materials for completing the same." It would appear that by fall the building must have been completed, for in the county statement for the year ending February 9, 1808, the cost of keeping the same is reported to be $5217.10. On the following May 17th the directors gave notice to the overseers of the several townships that they would be present at the poorhouse "in order to receive the paupers of the said county," with their goods, which are to be


valued by two men appointed for the purpose. Among the expenditures for the year 1809 are mentioned horse, cattle, and swine, $696.35 implements of husbandry, $245.98 bedsteads, bedding and furniture, $8839.67.

     Among the items in the report of the farm for 1813 are:

5 barrels of shad
435 bundles of flax
3 yards of flannel
45 of linsey
500 of linen
30 yards of carpeting

Jacob Barr of Pottstown, was steward, probably from the beginning until about 1816, at an annual salary of $400, which included his wife's services as matron. In 1821 the poorhouse was destroyed by fire. At this time Philip Reed, Samuel Horning, Samuel Mann were directors, who shortly afterwards had the same rebuilt. The barn and out-buildings were burned March 31, 1867 and rebuilt that summer. The former is of stone, 126 feet long, 76 feet wide, and cost $9790.71. The wagon-house, slaughter-house, sheep-stable, barn-yard wall, corn-crib and chicken-house cost additionally $3189.91.

     The house proving inadequate and not well adapted for the purpose designed, it was resolved to erect another more comfortable to modern taste, improvement and requirements. The contract for the building awarded by the county commissioners, August 15, 1870, to William H. Bodey, of Norristown, for the sum of seventy-one thousand dollars. The grading cost upwards of five thousand dollars; the engine, pipe and plumbing, four thousand dollars; in 1874 the building, steam-heating apparatus and necessary fixtures, cost nearly thirteen thousand five hundred dollars; the following year the steam-pump, plumbing, as fixtures, etc., above ten thousand dollars. The main building is two hundred and forty-four feet long, from seventy-five to fifty feet wide, and three stories high, surmounted by a stone belfry. A central rear wing extends back one hundred and two feet in length, fifty-four feet wide and two stories high. The whole is substantially built from the red sandstone of the neighborhood. Sixty dormitories are for the use of the paupers. The architect was Henry Sims. An adjacent building contains three large boilers for the purpose of heating water to warm the house. The water is brought hither from a spring about eight hundred yards distant, is pumped from a cistern by a steam-engine. A three-story stone building is used for hospital purposes and for the insane, and also another of two stories, a department of which is assigned to colored persons, the insane numbering about twenty-five. Water is brought to these buildings, and the barn by gravity from a Spring about five hundred yards distant.

     The male and female paupers eat apart and have their separate rooms. The graveyard is neatly inclosed and contains nearly an acre of ground. A law has been lately passed that all children between the age, of two and sixteen years are not to remain at the poorhouse over sixty days, but that the directors shall provide place, for them, thus rendering schools unnecessary here for the instruction of the young. In 1872 the former building was burned, fortunately when the present was nearly completed. The officers of the institution in January 1884, were as follows:


John A. Richter
John 0. Clemens
Daniel Shuler

David H. Ross, clerk
Adam F. Saylor, steward
Joseph H. Johnson, deputy steward
Samuel Rambo, farmer
Dr. J. W. Royer, physician
Horatio Sands, engineer
Charles Ulrich, watchman

Number of paupers, three hundred and five; monthly average, two hundred and forty-seven; cost of each per week, $1.46; net expenses, $18,798.80.

     Through a late purchase of farm now contains two hundred and ninety-eight acres, of which but ten or twelve remain in timber. The woodland in 1858 comprised about thirty acres. The land is quite rolling and appears to be under good cultivation. The main building from south, and, as seen from below on the east bank of the river, presents a fine view, the scenery around being unusually interesting. Above it is the Black Rock bridge spanning the Schuylkill, nearer it lovely island reposing its bosom, and the boats passing up and down the river impart variety. The government of the entire place is under the complete control of the three directors, who told their positions for three years, one being elected annually They appoint all the officer, of the institution and are accountable for its management. They are required bylaw to meet at least every month at the place and see to the proper regulation of the same. On the first Monday of January the directors, county auditors and treasurer meet here to adjust and make out the accounts of the previous year. The expenses are met by funds raised from taxes, levied by the County commissioners on requisition of' the directors, and through their order paid by the county treasurer.

     From the following statistics relative to pauperism in this county interesting information may be obtained: Number of paupers in the poorhouse on the 1st day of January,
1815, was 82
 in 1825, 106
in 1832, 110
in 1849, 198
in 1858, 233
in 1870, 265
in 1884, 305.

     The important question now arises have the poor increased or diminished with the population according to the several enumerations made? By calculation in 1815 we find it was
   about 1 in 393
in 1825, 1 in 350
in 1832, 1 in 360
in 1849, 1 in 290
in 1858, 1 in 343
in 1876, 1 in 340
in 1883, 1 in 280 of the population. It would have materially aided us, if we could have had the statistics at hand of the number of paupers in the poorhouse in census years, which would have been more accurate; but it is evident that pauperism among us is increasing in spite of the great diminution taking place in the use of intoxicating liquor, and the considerable sums now raised and paid out by benevolent and secret associations to ward off poverty and ameliorate the condition of society. It must be admitted that a considerable number of the poor are


improvident foreigners, as the officers of the Poorhouse have informed us; yet we doubt that the ratio is near as great now in proportion to our native population as formerly; at least, it does not appear so obvious. One of the great causes, most probably, is the rapid increase of our larger manufacturing towns, where habits of dissipation and idleness are more readily acquired and more prevalent than among the simpler habits and more regular pursuits of country life.

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