Albion Recorder & Morning Star News

Michigan Poor Homes: A Librarian’s Personal Quest

After his talk, Adam Oster answered questions and was explaining a point to this member of the audience
Library of Michigan official Adam Oster showed this slide of several poor home buildings from the 19th century. The talk was given in the basement auditorium of the Jackson District Library’s Carnegie branch.

By Ken Wyatt

Adam Oster is what you would call a poor-home historian. It isn’t a field of inquiry that attracts many historians – nor apparently many large audiences at a lovely Saturday afternoon lecture in mid-May. But it was a fine subject for Oster in his role as community engagement librarian with the Library of Michigan.

His talk on Saturday, May 18, was given to an audience of about 25 at the Carnegie branch of the Jackson District Library. The subject and timing were ideal, for Jackson County’s own poor farm was to be the setting for a dedication ceremony a few days later – on May 22. All that remains of the old farm is the cemetery where many of its residents were buried along County Farm Road in Blackman Township.

Oster’s talk briefly touched on the Jackson County Poor Farm. However, his main object was to give an overview of the poor homes, houses, farms throughout Michigan.

Using a series of slides, he walked us through some of the factors that led to the creation of these last-hope homes for the indigent.

In America, the first law for the establishment of homes “for the relief of the poor” was enacted in New Jersey in 1805. Other laws followed, and Michigan’s Act to Authorize the Establishment of Poor Homes was enacted in 1830. That was followed two years later by the territory’s first poor home in Detroit.

Oster’s own interest in the subject began in college. He has a B.A. in history and political science from Grand Valley University and an M.A. in library science from Indiana University. But like several of those at his lecture, he has an ancestry – a great-great grandmother Hazzie Oster – who was resident in the Gratiot County Poor Home.

That family history prompted him to do some research into poor homes, and the more he investigated, the more fascinating he found the history.

His slides highlighted a number of the poor homes. Of Michigan’s 83 counties, all but one had poor homes, houses or farms, almshouses, houses of refuge, county homes, county infirmaries at some point.

One of his slides made clear the difference between the two most widely terms:

“Poorhouse: A place maintained at public expense to house needy or dependent persons.”

“Poor Farm: Rural poorhouse or a city farm basing its economy off of farming.”

Some were simple buildings; others had multiple buildings and acreage for farming. Jackson County’s poor farm was in the latter category. It had a sizable main building, but smaller outbuildings supporting the farm.

Most poor homes or farms are long gone. But there are ongoing preservation projects in Leelanau, Van Buren, Ottawa counties.

Some poor homes were little more than fire traps. Indeed, on Jan. 24, 1886, the Jackson County Poor Home went up in flames. It took the lives of five residents.

The poorhouse era lasted in Michigan from the early 1830s into the 1960s. Especially after the Roosevelt New Deal legislation provided for Social Security and then the addition of Medicare later, many of the needs of the elderly were being met. Increasingly, the problems were more related to health care than poverty.

In Jackson County’s case, the poor home era ended in February, 1963, when nearly 90 remaining residents were transferred from the old home to a new medical care facility. It had been funded by a $1.7 million bond issue that voters passed.

Ironically, history seems to be repeating itself. After his talk, Oster saw a modern-day challenge similar to that faced by those who authorized the first poor homes in the 19th century. All across the nation, homelessness is becoming a problem. There are homeless encampments in many large cities. Even here in Jackson County, there has been a recent increase in senior citizens who are homeless. Julie Wetherby, CEO of WellWise Services Area Agency on Aging, writes in her monthly report that “A big barrier is the lack of transitional housing, and affordable, accessible, secure housing.”

The era of the poor homes may be past, but human needs continue.

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