Welcome to the Misadventures of Widowhood blog!

In January of 2012 my soul mate of 42 years passed away after nearly 12 years of living with severe disabilities due to a stroke. I survived the first year after Don’s death doing what most widows do---trying to make sense of my world turned upside down. The pain and heartache of loss, my dark humor, my sweetest memories and, yes, even my pity parties are well documented in this blog.

Now that I’m a "seasoned widow" the focus of my writing has changed. I’m still a widow looking through that lens but I’m also a woman searching for contentment, friends and a voice in my restless world. Some people say I have a quirky sense of humor that shows up from time to time in this blog. Others say I make some keen observations about life and growing older. I say I just write about whatever passes through my days---the good, bad and the ugly. Comments welcome and encouraged. Let's get a dialogue going! Jean

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Poor People Past and Present





I do it to myself every April. I over schedule myself. This year I have 22 appointments or events on my day planner for this month and part of that is because it’s the end of winter when some biannual stuff needs to take place: a trip to dentist and the internist, an irrigation system turn on/off. Then there are the repeating stuff that happens every month: haircuts and dog grooming, two gal pal brunches and two Mad Hatter teas, book club, and the Movie and Lunch Club. I also add to the schedule senior hall events when their newsletter comes out and it’s time to email RSVPs for spring. Who, for example, could pass up a lecture on the history of the poor farms in Michigan? Uh-oh, am I seeing a bunch hands raised out there at the other end of this internet connection? (I need an eye rolling emoji here.)

Actually the poor farm lecture was extremely well attended. Although some of the people there might have missed the part about it being a lecture about history and thought it was about a place we could sign up to go to live out our final days. Either way when the speaker---a research librarian---asked for a show of hands on how many people had a family connection to a poor farm or poor house about of forth of the crowd responded with an affirmative hand in the air. Imagine my shock when one of my ancestors was later named as a keeper of one of the county poor farms in 1857 but thankfully he was not one of the keepers embroiled in a scandal that made the local newspaper. Scandals like the keeper who butchered a disease-ridden cow and fed it to the people in his care. A lot scandals were going on back when the state was paying twenty-five cents a day per person to house and feed the poor. 

I was also surprised at how far back there has been public funding and support in the United States for caring for people who couldn’t take care of themselves---laws have been on the books mandating care as far back as the 1830s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the first third of the 1900s before they started separating the mental ill from the physically ill so I would imagine the term ‘snake pit’ would have aptly applied to some of these places. Although from what I’m been able to learn the term snake pit to describe a place where groups of sick people lived in deplorable conditions wasn’t used until the 1940s, popularized by the book and movie, The Snake Pit. Both were based on the true story of a woman’s experiences living in a state mental institution. I remember seeing that movie and it scared the crap out of me.

Anyway, back on point. It was not a boring lecture by any stretch of the imagination but I found one fact particularly interested in the light of what’s going on now at our southern border. The poor farms and poor houses separated children from their parents. A man and wife could reside in the same place only in different wings set up for men and women but the kids, if they were old enough, were ‘farmed out’ to work and live in the community and the babies were given to those who wanted them which was what happened to my mom and her siblings when their mother died. People who lived at these poor farms were expected to work if they were able---either in the gardens or fields, the kitchen or laundry or to clean. And when they died they often ended up in unmarked graves. Sometimes they were given train tickets to go back to the counties where they were born, since by law each county was mandated to care for their own poor.

When you think about it, we’ve been a nation that has tried to care for the down and outers for a very long time, and I personally believe the resentment of doing so now is a new ‘phenomenon’ in this century. Maybe because we’re losing the Christian/Judeo ethics we once prided ourselves on having as a nation that makes it easier for some to justify why they belong in the group of haves and others belong in a group of have nots. Maybe because we no longer send the poor off to live in group housing---out of sight, out of mind---that we think we have the right judge whether or not someone truly needs public assistance. Or maybe we’ve grown too cynical to trust the system to make those judgements. Maybe we’re so far removed from knowing people who lost it all through no fault of their own that we’ve become less compassionate about individual hard-luck stories. Famine and World Wars of past centuries, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression touched our grandparents and other ancestors more deeply than the generations to follow. Could that be it? Who knows why the resentment of the poor is out there, but we were just told by our president that our country is “full” and we can no longer take in “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and if I could find that eye rolling emoji in my Word program I’d end this post with a baker’s dozen of them.  ©

Offer May Vary

NOTE: Drawing at the top is of the poor farm in Calhoun County Michigan

32 comments:

  1. I think part of the problem is the recent (past 30 years or so) focus on The Self. There is a lot of Me Me Me ethos out there--several generations raised to think of themselves, or who even raised themselves, basically.

    In this era, anyone can have a Social Media/You Tube presence. They can have Followers. It can breed a sort of insular mindset and in some cases, selfishness and ego.

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    1. I don't doubt what you are saying for a minute. I just hope the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Only time will tell, but I see a lot of young people involved in do-good projects and they seem to be coming up with the ideas on their own.

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  2. This was interesting. "The poor house" is a phrase one heard a lot back in the day didn't we? I like the cartoon, offer may vary. Not with the orange buffoon, his offer is get out. I wish he would take his own advice and leave!

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    1. We did hear it a lot growing up, didn't we. It was a cautionary tale. When I was sitting at the lecture I thought the poor farm concept could work today and there is a form of this out west where a man is building tiny houses for the homeless and they have the community gardens to grow food and a community garage for car repair. I'd like to see more of this idea going up across the country.

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  3. 22 appointments, WOW! I'm lucky if I have 3 appointments and two of them might be for the doctor. LOL It's great if you can do as much as you can.
    The way that the world is going, no one really cares about the poor and down trodden. When the U.S. is controlled ( Canada is included ) when the very rich are controlling everything, what do you except. These rich people have no understanding about what poor is all about. I worry about our world Jean. Have a Happy Easter my friend. See ya.


    Cruisin Paul

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    1. I was thinking about this yesterday when I saw that the wealthy have already raised nearly a billion dollars to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral and I though, "Wouldn't it be nice if they cares as much about the starving children in Argentina." Not that I don't think rebuilding it is a worthy cause.... but what is it going to take to get the wealthy of the world to see another kind of crisis that effects our humanity?

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    2. I totally agree. I understand the loss at Notre Dame Cathedral but in my mind, people should be taken care of first, then beautiful buildings. Remember when everyone was going around using the letters "WWJD" ---- wouldn't you think that they would wonder.

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    3. The WWJD crowd is missing in action these days.

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  4. Funny, I had never heard the term "poor farm". At first I thought you were referring to real farmers that had a tough go of it.
    Being a bleeding heart liberal, I have never minded my money going to help someone less fortunate. Taxes kind of handle that problem for us and charities and churches pick up the slack. We have evidently come a long way.

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    1. I don't mind taxes either. I want fire and police protection and public services and to help those who need it.

      Arkansas---I just looked it up---had poorhouses in Benton and Cleburne counties starting in 1861 and Clay county built a poor farm in 1912. Your family must not have had super poor ancestors. LOL

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  5. Thanks for this. I didn't know about the poor farms. However, I did hear about the snake pits when I was a kid. Eastern State, the first insane asylum in the US, was in Williamsburg, VA, about 25 minutes from where I lived. When I was growing up, there were horrible stories about what went on there.

    Our country has been individual-focused since maybe the 80s or 90s I'm thinking, maybe even a little longer. There was a time when we were more community-focused. Earlier in the 20th century, it was necessary. People were dependent on one another. I'm thinking we may swing back to being more community-focused again as we see increasing divides between the classes, and as robots/technology take more jobs from humans.

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    1. When I was in college I had to walk past an asylum for the insane when I went to classes. And the people would be in cages on porches who'd watch us. That was so creepy and so sad. They used to have dances there where college kids were invited to dance with the patients. I never went. Probably should have but I was not brave or was still very naive.

      I'm guessing the force on the individual was seeded with my generation and our parents wanting to give us everything and ever opportunity they didn't get. Then the Baby Boomers came along and all because of their numbers those seeds started to grow. I agree with the idea that being community focus is coming back. There is no shortage of do-good kids out there who know how to use media to grow support for their causes.

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  6. You do really interesting things! But what is it about April?

    I didn't know about the poor farms, so that's really intriguing. And I'm looking at the comments -- what asylum did you pass in college? Kazoo? TC? Eloise? Just curious. Have you read Alice's Ghost (I think). Fascinating.

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    1. Kazoo. I was in a dorm on the hill right close by. I heard they are both still there. No, I haven't read that book. Should I?

      By the time we were born the poor houses and farms were closing down thanks to the Roosevelt Administration. His New Deal brought us Social Security and the social welfare programs that were a part of that S.S. New Deal of 1935 so less need for these kinds of places.

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  7. PS -- the name of the pattern in that dish you mentioned on my blog is Hall China's Crocus pattern. I collect it. (And thanks for coming by!)

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    1. I knew it was Hall but I couldn't think of the pattern for the life of me. Thanks. I love it.

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  8. Both of my parents grew up poor ... my Dad on a pig farm. My Mom in the city with 12 brothers and sisters and an alcoholic father. There was an interesting article on the poor who are struggling on SS only ... https://www.nextavenue.org/retiring-on-next-to-nothing-in-america/?fbclid=IwAR3q8EXw4Rw_PjoEkafT-5HttoEj0DMTKtj3tjgqzncSIkV7pnCqvhkSkco. Before we give any money to any other country, we need to take care of our own poor people.

    22 appointments? I couldn't do it ....

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    1. I'll check out the article. Thanks.

      I've never found the perfect balance of activities outside the house vs. down time. But I usually find my breaking point in April.

      My mom's dad was alcoholic, too, but I don't know if he was before his wife died and his kids were farmed out or whether that event lead to the alcoholism. I think the latter but there is no one to ask.

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  9. You need a new tag for "interesting" . I can't believe all the comments on never hearing about the "poor farm". I've heard it throughout my life and I grew up in Ohio in the 60s and 70s. My parents came from the mountains of Eastern MY and I don't think there were any poor farms there but what do I know? My parents weren't raised on a poor farm, although their families were far from wealthy. Just poor mountain folks. I do know that after my maternal grandmother died, my dad's younger brothers and sisters were sent to a boarding school of sorts in KY until my grandfather was able to care for them. I'd like to hear more about your mom and her siblings experience.

    I'm a small town girl and I'd love to live in a tiny house community where everyone contributes. It would be nice to be wanted and needed and part of community where you could live safely and simply. Pipe dream for me, I'm afraid.

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  10. I tried to change the tags once but it sets the count back to 'O' for all the tags. Hardly anyone uses them anyway which is a big disappointment. Thanks to those of you who do.

    I was surprised, too, at the comments from those who'd never heard of 'poor farms.' I guess common knowledge isn't always so common.

    My mom was ten when her mother died after giving birth to her sixth child. She was one of the lucky ones because she ended up living and working in a boarding house her grandmother owned in a different town. One of her sisters---her daughter says---would never talk about her childhood and a third was openly resentful about the fact that she was sent far away and evidently didn't have an easy childhood. The siblings that stayed in town, at least, were able to see each other at school. As young adults the ones in town tracked down the others. I don't know much more than that. You know how it is, by the time you get interested in family history there is no one to ask and even then, half the siblings wouldn't talk about their childhood to their own kids, so my cousins know even less than I do.

    I hope those tiny house communities are so successful that they start them in other places. It just makes so much sense. Housing is too expensive for those who can't work or can't earn enough for conventional housing.

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  11. I can't believe the lack of empathy in the world today. I wish I knew how to teach it to people. Whatever happened to "there but for the grace of god go I"? There seems to be a world-wide epidemic of smugness and entitlement and lack of care for our fellow humans. And the most loudly religious of us seem to be the most highly infected. Go figure. Jesus, if you believe in him, must be crying his eyes out.
    Thanks for another interesting and informative post, Jean.

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    1. I totally agree with everything you're saying. I'm often shocked on Facebook by some super religious people I know who are taking what I'd call selfish positions about the issues of our times.

      I think empathy must be taught in the home when kids are really young. But TV shows like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and children's literature can also teach it. I am bothered by the trend to allow Alexia and Siri to read bedtimes stories to kids now instead the parents. Those interactive entities can't ask questions and plan seeds in those little brains like a caring parent can.

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    2. What, really? Using Alexa to read a bedtime story??? I did not know that. You're right, Jean - empathy needs to be taught in the home, along with so many other things. And parents need to realize kids learn the most by watching them and their behaviours. It doesn't matter what you say to your kids, it matters what your kids see you doing as you go about your life. That's when they are really learning from you.

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    3. Yup, I personally I know three people who use Alexa to read to their kids. They don't know each other. In the car I can understand it, but at bedtime, kids need that face time routine!


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  12. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, there was a County Home on the outskirts of town. Honestly, I always thought it was solely for elderly people who didn't have family to care for them, but I'm not sure. I do know that it was a relatively respected institution. Church youth groups and such would visit from time to time, taking 'care packages' for holidays -- not just Christmas, but even the 4th of July and May Day. (Remember May Day? It was a big deal for us, and May baskets filled with flowers and candy were exchanged, even at school.)

    Now that I think about it, that was the community teaching empathy, too, just as parents and other family members do. We need to recover the understanding that empathy isn't a feeling alone; it's an action, too. Feeling sorry for people and sending a check isn't quite the same as spending a day at a food bank, or visiting a nursing home.

    Now I'm intrigued by the history of that place in my home town. I'll have to see what I can find out about it.

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    1. You're right, having children interact with the County Home residents was doing as much for the kids as those adults. If you google 'teaching empathy' it seems to be a popular topic to write about so I'm guessing a lot of people are recognizing what it's a quality that is slipping away in modern society and we need to stop the bleeding before it's too late.

      Good luck with your research. Knowing you, you'll probably get an interesting and thorough post out of it.

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  13. Interesting! My mother talked of poor farms and the fear people had of ending up in one. Let's hope current attitudes espoused by too many politicians don't lead us in that direction.

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    1. Fear of ending up at a poor house or the poor farm was the kind of commons I remember hearing growing up, too.

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  14. One of your readers mentioned the "county home" and suddenly I had a vivid memory of my Girl Scout troop visiting the one in our Illinois county -- I can still see the dingy mustard colored walls and what appeared to my young eyes as ancient, toothless men and women sitting around an institutional dining table, vacant eyed, with "bibs" on eating something unappealing. I remember feeling so sad and a little scared. I recall the word "poor farm" from my childhood -- not sure it was this place, but maybe.

    I wonder if we have ever really done our best to care for the less fortunate? We put policies in place, create "adequate" shelter, etc, but there is always a "lesser than" when our judgements of who is deserving and who is not creep in. The current Administration has added blatant and unapologetic racism to the mix. And again I am sad and afraid ...for our country and the ongoing divisions among our citizens and those who need help.

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    1. Who knows, maybe that childhood experience is one of the reasons why you're such an activist today. It was part of the empathy teaching our generation got through scouting. But kids now are more apt to be in other kinds of activities other than that don't include do-good projects.

      Our current administration is full of toxic waste and I hope we can recovery after he's gone. The next administration is going to critical.

      Come back and read my next Wednesday's post. It's about the Mueller Report and how it effected a friendship of mine.

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  15. I would have been very interested in the poor farm lecture. Many towns in Maine have a "Town Farm Road," and my own town still designates the members of the Board of Selectpersons as "Overseers of the Poor." A lot of our cultural attitudes toward poverty, the poor, and welfare can be traced back to the Elizabethan poor laws adopted in Britain in the early 17th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I.

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    1. I think a lot of people who put down helping the poor and disabled today don't have a sense of history at all, like it's something new.

      I loved the names of the roads and streets in Maine!

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