BY JEAN HOWE STOW
from the Frontier Times
Photos Courtesy Author
|Submitted by Jean Gilley firstname.lastname@example.org|
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Before the days of welfare, Social Security and other such programs, if an angered husband declared to an extravagant wife, “You’re going to put us in the poor house!” there was a possibility he was telling the truth. Because such places did exist.
Big cities had their almshouses, while rural areas had the county poor farm. Near the end of the 1890s, Cass County, Texas, located in the northeast corner of the state, followed the nationwide trend by establishing such a paupers’ shelter. It became a well run farm, not too different from the thousands of others scattered across the country. But the Cass County poor farm did develop a degree of uniqueness years later, when its doors remained open until 1956, long after similar farms had become obsolete and practically forgotten.
The Cass County institution began on August 14, 1895 when a commissioners court authorized County Judge G. O. Albright to purchase some land from a Mrs. Givens for the sum of $300. This acreage was located in the vicinity known as Pea Ridge, about two and a half miles north of present-day Linden.
Up until then, needy citizens had received aid through a system whereby their names were placed on a pauper’s list, which entitled them to monthly payments from the county, ranging from $3 to $8 per month. Because of the increasing length of the pauper’s list and to improve county finances, the old method was discontinued and the poor farm was originated.
To be eligible for residence at the poor farm, a person couldn’t own more than $10 in worldly goods. This had not been the case with the pauper’s list, as many listed on it owned homes. Undoubtedly, by establishing the county farm the commissioners were able to whittle down the relief rolls considerably.
An order set down by the commissioners court on September 24, 1895 informed the public that “there will be no money paid to paupers after November 1, 1895. All persons expecting assistance from the county will report to the county farm on that day.”
The county farm also was used as a place to keep short-term prisoners, mostly those who had been arrested for such offenses as dice playing or fighting. They were sent to the farm to work out their sentences, staying less than a month as a rule.
On November 14, 1895 B.F. (Ben) Duncan of Linden was employed as superintendent and foreman of the county farm. The agreement under which he was hired stated: “B.F. Duncan shall be employed and paid $300 for his services as superintendent and foreman on the county farm, for a term of one year. The money will be paid to him monthly at $25 per month, and he will be furnished necessary stock, working utensils and other provisions for himself and his family without cost to him.
“The superintendent must agree to move to the farm and assume charge of the labor there and give his entire time to the farm; he must look after the convicts and the paupers and see that they work and labor as the law requires, and look after and care for all stock, and cultivate and improve the farm.”
On the same day, the court drew up the following rules and regulations governing the county farm: "Paupers shall be required to do such labor as the superintendent exacts of them, he being the judge of their physical ability to perform such labor. Convicts shall labor as the superintendent expects them to. If a convict refuses to labor as directed by the superintendent, he shall be punished by solitary confinement on bread and water or by corporal punishment. This shall continue until the convict decides to do the required labor.
“The superintendent is to treat all paupers and convicts humanely. The paupers and convicts are not allowed to swear or use obscene or vulgar language on the county farm. Convicts shall be required to work usual hours of farm hands. When the convicts’ labor cannot be used on the farm, they shall labor on the public roads.“No one shall be allowed to loiter around the farm or interfere with the paupers and convicts by day or night without the consent of the superintendent. Under no circumstances will convicts or paupers be allowed to leave the farm without the consent of the superintendent.”
At the same time, Judge Albright ordered purchased for the county farm “a good wagon, four mules and bedding and furniture such as is needed on the farm, to be secured as cheap as can be found on the market.”
No separate provisions were made for the convicts until January 5, 1898, when the court ordered a house built at the farm “for the purpose of keeping county convicts when they are not at labor.” The court also authorized Duncan to have the house built “on the best and cheapest plans.”
Who were these “paupers” who came to live at the county farm? For the most part they were elderly persons with no family able to care for them and with no income of their own. Many were physically disabled to the extent that working for a living was impossible. In addition, during the farm’s early years, there were a few mothers with small children and no means of support.
By 1900 laws were being enacted in various states forbidding the care of children in almshouses, and hardly any children were kept at the Cass County poor farm after that time.
Residing there was a last resort for the paupers. Both social attitudes and government organization held back legislation in the field of social welfare.
During the expansion period of the 19th century, the vast land resources of the United States offered most people a chance to obtain a livelihood. The old agricultural economy set the pattern of life, and even commerce and industry were conducted on a simple scale.
This period was also characterized by a generally accepted belief that personal initiative was all that was necessary to achieve material success. The traditional belief that indigence is always synonymous with incompetence, and any governmental aid given the financially unfortunate carried with it the taint of pauperism, tended to support this attitude. People survived any way they could until their resources sank below $10 – then they had no alternative.
To be allowed to move to the county farm, a person had to appear before the commissioner’s court and take a “pauper’s oath. This required declaring to the county judge and commissioners, “I am a pauper,” and the humiliating experience often produced feeling of guilt and shame that remained with the unfortunates for the remainder of their lives.
Around the year 1900, the Cass County poor farm was moved to another location, approximately two miles east of Linden on the road that is still known as the “old county farm road.” Duncan still was the superintendent even though he had originally been hired for only a one-year term. Each November the court had re-hired him for another year, and he remained in charge of the farm until November 15, 1905, at which time J. C. Erwin replaced him by order of the court of County Judge W. F. Ford.
For the next nine years the county farm saw three superintendents come and go. Besides Erwin, Jim Weatherall and Martin Echols held the position. During these years various laws were passed providing, at least to a degree, for assistance to other categories of needy people. Besides the mothers’ aid or aid to dependent children, laws affecting war veterans and the blind were enacted.
The county commissioners visited and inspected the farm regularly. On one such visit, the commissioners reported finding thirty-three of the farm’s acres planted in cotton and another forty-five in corn. They also noted that the paupers seemed well cared for, and their rooms were “neat as a pin.”
In addition to furnishing all the necessities of life for the paupers, the commissioners supplied them with the necessities of death. One entry in the court’s fiscal records reveals the payment of $8 for a coffin and a payment of $2 for the digging of a grave. All coffins were alike, and a funeral service, complete with music and an officiating minister, was provided for each pauper who died at the farm.
In November 1914, Nat Jones of Linden became superintendent of the county farm. He served until his death in December, 1918 at which time his brother, Edd became the farm’s superintendent, and he remained in that position for fifteen years, until death claimed him too.
The Edd Jones family was larger than most with nine children, and the salary he received from the county was too small to adequately support them. Therefore, Jones bought from the county all the farm’s livestock, farm equipment, and feed for the sum of $4,000, which he obtained through a bank loan. He repaid the loan by planting cotton on, not only all the county’s land, but on all he could rent from neighbors as well.
After this transaction, Jones’ only help from the county was $20 per month he received for each of the farm’s inmates. With this money he was required to purchase all food and firewood necessary.
During these years life at the poor farm began around five a.m. when, in cold weather, the superintendent built a fire in each of the rooms provided for the inmates. These rooms were joined together, although each room’s entrance opened outside, similar to a present-day motel.
The superintendent then returned to his house where he, with the help of family members, cooked breakfast for the inmates, whose dining room joined the superintendent’s house. A typical breakfast consisted of a hundred biscuits, a whole ham, eggs, oatmeal and coffee. Each inmate also was given a dose of tonic, Prickly Ash Bitters, before breakfast.
When the weather became exceptionally hot, the superintendent was always afraid the convicts would suffocate in the farm’s jail. Often he would leave the doors open to allow them to get fresh air, but he also gathered up all the convict’s clothes and took them with him. His theory was that no convict would attempt an escape in only his underwear, and none ever did.
Preachers came regularly to the farm to hold services; doctors came when called – namely Dr. C. E. Davis and Dr. Orval Taylor, both from Linden; and occasionally all the commissioners and the county judge visited the farm and had dinner with the superintendent, and his family, as well as with the paupers and convicts.
Mrs. Mable Buckland, eldest child of Edd Jones, resides in Linden today, and she can relate numerous experiences dating from her girlhood years at the county poor farm. She tells of a boy who, at thirteen, was the youngest inmate during her father’s lengthy term as superintendent. The boy had had polio when he was five, and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Even with this handicap, however, he managed to be of considerable help at the farm. One of his jobs was to drive the wagon into Linden daily to deliver wood to the courthouse and jail. This remained his job for about five years, until he moved to Oklahoma to live with a brother.
An aged Confederate veteran from near Naples, Texas was another of the inmates whom Mrs. Buckland remembered well. He was an expert fiddler and would play for her each morning as she churned. And sometimes she even left her churning for a moment and danced to his lively music.
But even in those days, there were a few people who tried to lay claim to welfare assistance when they weren’t eligible. Mrs. Buckland recalls that one time her father accidentally uncovered $1,000 in cash hidden in an inmate’s room. The man had the resources to support himself, but he preferred to live off charity. That man was promptly evicted from the farm.
In August 1933, Edd Jones died. He was replaced as superintendent of the county poor farm by Elmer Almond. By then, the end of the farm’s usefulness as an almshouse was in sight. The Depression, which had begun in 1929, had boosted the number of unemployed and needy persons to record highs, and it had become evident that local and state governments had to have the aid of the federal government in dealing with the problem of caring for these people.
In 1932 the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was authorized by Congress to make loans to states and cities for relief purposes. It was followed in 1933 by the Federal Emergency Relief Act with also made grants to local governments for unemployment relief. Then, in 1935, the sweeping Social Security Act was passed.
Periodically over the years this Social Security Act was amended to include practically everyone. Yet the Social Security Act strictly forbade providing financial aid to anyone in a public institution.
This was the death knell for the Cass County poor farm, though it remained open until, in 1956, another two years. When Superintendent Ed White, who had replaced Almond, died that year (1956) the farm’s doors closed for good. The last inmate, an elderly woman, went to live with her sister, and all became quiet at the farm.
The county still owns the property, but the only remaining reminders of this ghost of the past is the old paupers’ cemetery. Two years ago Cass County officials had the cemetery cleared, fenced, and wooden markers erected. The name, “Mockingbird Hill Cemetery,” was bestowed upon this old graveyard. It is a fitting, if belated, gesture to the lonely ones of our past, the ones who never “quite made it” on the frontier or elsewhere.
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