Is the Poor Farm Cemetery Lost Again?
There was a time you really could end up in the poor house or at least a poor farm.
When I was growing up my Daddy always seemed to have some money in his pocket. He would pull out his “folding money” and peel off a ten dollar or twenty dollar bill when my sister or I would hold out our hand for something we needed, but I seriously doubt if he ever knew at any given moment the exact amount he and mother had in the bank. Mom handled the day to day bill paying, the checkbook reconciliations, and overall handling of the money once Daddy gave her his paycheck. She knew on a daily basis how much money was in play and watched it like the mother hen that she was.
We could usually gauge how things were going in the finance department with Mother’s references to the “poor house.” Statements such as, “We are going to end up in the poor house at the rate we are spending!” or “We can’t do that! It will put us in the poor house!” I didn’t know what or where the poor house was, but I can assure you from my mother’s tone I knew it was a place I didn’t want to go.
You might have heard someone in your past refer to the poor house. In fact, “in the poor house” is listed in most reference books as an idiom–words and phrases that are grammatically unusual or cannot be taken literally such as “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
Today, the phrase “in the poor house” can’t be taken literally, but prior to the Great Depression and the advent of Social Security poor houses were real places set aside by local governments for dependent or needy persons. They were very common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anne Sullivan–Helen Keller’s teacher, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley all resided on a poor farm at some point in their lives.
Here in Douglasville the poor house was referred to by citizens as the poor farm, but official records used the term Alms House to refer to a type of welfare program before Social Security and welfare as we know it today came into existence.
Paupers made application to the county commissioner or county Ordinary–today’s Probate Judge. State law defined a pauper as someone who was unable to support themselves by laboring. Census records indicate most of the inmates (a term used in public records) were elderly people who had nowhere else to go and in most cases were women over the age of 50. The liability of relatives to support the poor only extended to parents and children, so this meant it was possible for extended members of a family to be out on the street once a spouse died if there were no children or parents around.
Prior to the poor farm local residents who were found to be indigent or were caught begging on the streets were often auctioned off where the pauper was sold to the lowest bidder. The bidder would agree to provide room and board paid for by the county for a specific period of time. In return, the pauper would provide some type of labor basically making the situation a form of indentured servitude. Reference is made to this in the 1883 Grand Jury Presentments for Douglas County recorded in The Weekly Star where it states, “Further that Anderson Wheeler and his wife, paupers, be let to the highest bidder. It is also recommended that said Anderson Wheeler and his wife remain with John M. Haines until let to the lowest bidder, and that said Haines be paid twenty-five dollars per month for keeping them.”
The poor farm in Douglasville was located two miles north of town down Chicago Avenue. It was first organized in 1882-1883 when 65 acres was purchased by the county in response to a Grand Jury recommendation stating “It is recommended that the Ordinary build an Alms House for the care of paupers and that J.B. Daniel, T.H. Selman, J.W. Brown, and A.L. Gosline be appointed a committee to [work] with the Ordinary in selecting and purchasing site for same…”
Found within those same Grand Jury Presentments for 1883 is a review of the Ordinary’s books for that year. Their findings indicate “extravagant expenditures since the last term." Those extravagant expenditures might be the reason why the recommendations for an Alms House were made. The report indicated “an order for a pauper’s coffin, $20.00; burial expenses of John Hawkins, not a pauper, $12.85; burial expenses of Reece Stewart, a pauper, $21.50; medical expenses to J.L. Williams, not a pauper, $70.00.”
In setting up a poor farm most local governments required the inmates raise their own food and raise crops that could be sold to off-set the cost of maintaining the farm. State laws governed the poor farm where rules were strict and accommodations very minimal.
By 1884, the farm in Douglasville was in full operation with a vegetable garden, fruit orchard and a few cash crops as well. George M. Souter, a former Douglas County sheriff, was the poor farm superintendent until his death in 1902.
Once the poor farm was up and running it was inspected once a year by the Grand Jury to access the health and care of inmates as well as review how productive the farm had been during the last year.
In 1897, the poor farm reported to the Grand Jury they had a total of eight inmates and the total expenditures for the farm including the superintendent’s salary were $403.08.
Fannie Mae Davis indicates in her history of Douglas County, “In the early years of the twentieth century, the state allowed prison labor to be used in building and maintaining public roads. At which time Douglas County located a prison camp on the farm at a site near the residence of the paupers and as the county acquired heavy road machinery that too, was parked at the prison site when not in use.” This was a common practice across the state. You can still find the county’s maintenance building and heavy equipment parked on the site close to the corner of Chicago Avenue and Cedar Mountain Road.
The 1903 Grand Jury Presentments include a lengthy report from George Souter’s son since Superintendent Souter had passed away in 1902. The report indicated total cost of maintaining the farm and the inmates for a seven month period was $107.95. There was also a notation that two of the chimneys at the farm needed to be repaired. Cash crops were also mentioned–rent cotton had been “gathered and marketed for $68.00” with the money being deposited with the county treasurer at the Douglas Banking Company." Other crops mentioned were “rent corn at 100 bushels; rent fodder at 1200 bundles; rent forage at 2 loads; rent cotton seeds at 50 bushels and rent sweet potatoes at 15 bushels.”
The report also makes mention of two cows giving milk and butter as well as a garden full of collards and turnips.
The farm phased out in 1932 once Social Security began as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The last burial in the poor farm cemetery was that same year. The county finally sold the land to Will Morris, a dairy farmer, in 1945. A land developer took possession of the property in the 1970s and a few duplexes were built. Fannie Mae Davis indicates the developer had “little regard to the long forgotten and barely recognized old [poor farm] graveyard.”
Sadly, it seems some of the newer buildings were built over the cemetery as Mrs. Davis continues, “However, it was as if an ancient city had been discovered, when in 1980, a new home owner found that his yard was a cemetery and his house was built in the middle of it. The case was fairly resolved, but not before the Atlanta television stations and the Atlanta newspapers gave space and time to the story for a few days.”
I ventured down Chicago Avenue this past weekend to see what I could find. The county maintenance buildings are still there, along with some heavy equipment. There is a Shell gas station and a subdivision adjoining the property, but I never could determine exactly where the cemetery is. I asked the man behind the counter at the Shell station, a couple of customers and a couple of folks who were out in their yards in the subdivision about it, but no one knew about the pauper’s graves. I checked with the county cemetery listings at Celebrate Douglas and the poor farm cemetery is not listed.
I have to wonder–Is the poor farm cemetery lost again?