Did I ever tell you that when my mother met my father, he was living at the Beaver County Poor House? Yup, it’s true!
Before the middle of the 19th century, the general population pretty much dismissed anyone with a disability, defined at the time as lameness, insanity or feeble-mindedness, or people too old and infirm to work, and those who were extremely poor.
If such folks couldn’t care for themselves and had no family to look after them, they were reduced to begging and a pauper’s grave. Beaver County, in western Pennsylvania where I grew up, was typical of the rest of the country.
Some in the county recognized the need for an almshouse, as it was then called, as early as 1831, but the first facility, a low, wooden building, wasn’t constructed until 1853.
The property was 130 acres along the south side of the Ohio River, just west of Monaca. The farm and a large garden were tended by the inmates, as the home residents were then known, and much of their food was grown right there.
By 1913, the buildings were in poor condition and in 1916 a new facility was completed, a large neo-classical brick central building with a big high-pillared front porch, which housed the administrative offices, kitchen, laundry, and superintendent’s quarters, adjoined by a dormitory wing on each side, one for men and the other for women. Sherman Moore, my grandfather (“Nandad” to all we grandkids), was a successful farmer in South Beaver Township in Beaver County, was a staunch Republican, and seems to have been the chief party poobah in the township.
Every Election Day he would dress up in his Sunday suit and spend the whole day at the single township polling place talking to people and shaking hands. Although he never ran for office himself, as far as I know, it was said that anyone running for a township office needed Nandad’s good opinion to win the Republican primary election.
In 1928 or ’29, Nandad’s party loyalty was rewarded.
Job becomes vacant
For unknown reasons, the position of superintendent of the county home had become vacant and Nandad was given the job. It’s unclear whether he solicited the position or was recruited, but he was a good farmer and there are a few hints that the county farm may not have been paying its way.
So Nandad had a sale where he disposed of the livestock and most of the farm machinery and household goods, and the whole family, including my dad and his younger brother, took up residence in the main building of the county home.
My grandmother was a stickler for cleanliness and family lore tells of her first visit to the women’s wing of the facility, for which she was responsible as County Home Matron.
The first thing she noticed was several of the women residents plucking lice from their dresses, throwing them on the floor and stepping on them. She went through the kitchen and pantries and found wormy flour and insect-infested raisins and prunes.
The home’s bill for carbolic soap and other cleaning supplies immediately rose dramatically and everything and everybody was disinfected and scrubbed.
Nandad did his part as well. The local newspaper reported in early 1930: “The Beaver County Poor Farm is a paying proposition.”
Income vs. cost
It went on: “Moore’s report reveals that products were raised with a total value of $14,793.67 for the year 1929. This includes dairy products, vegetables, fruit, feed and dressed meat. The operating cost for 1929 was $10,699.68.”
The report was broken down as, Dairy products: $5,873.67; vegetables: $2772.50; feed, including straw, corn, hay, oats, wheat and silage: $3,841.75; eggs: $290.25; fruit: $106; meat, including pork, $1,507.50; beef, $90; and veal, $312, for a total of $1,909.50. Other items, for which no value was assigned, included 750 pounds of lard, 150 pounds of cheese, and 625 pounds of sausage.
Grandma and her women workers canned 2,720 quarts of vegetables, along with making 400 glasses of jelly, 60 glasses of quince honey, 3 barrels of sauerkraut, and 20 gallons of piccalilli.
That year there were 150 “inmates” or residents at the home and “the institution, although crowded, was never in better condition nor more efficiently handled than at present. Food, sanitation, living conditions, discipline, with necessary medical, hospital and nursing care have steadily improved under the able management and direction of Superintendent and Mrs. Moore.
“Scientific cooking and feeding, inaugurated under the Moore’s administration, has added much to the general health and personal comfort of the inmates.”
It’s surprising to me that my grandparents, Nandad was 62 and Grandma 56 when appointed, who had been on the farm all their lives up to this time, had the administrative skill to manage such an operation, or the forward thinking to adapt methods such as “scientific cooking and feeding,” whatever that was.
Grandma’s heart began to give her problems and by 1934 it became bad enough that Nandad resigned as superintendent and they moved back to the farm where my family was then living. He helped Dad and my uncle who were running the farm and lived to the ripe old age of 96.
Grandma’s heart got steadily worse and she died in 1943.
Now, back to my original statement. My mother was a member of the choir at the Grace Lutheran Church in Rochester, Pennsylvania, and probably about 1930 the choir visited the County Home to sing for the residents.
My father was smitten by her beauty and quickly asked her out. She consented and things took their course, as they often do, with them being married on Oct. 16, 1931.
While I have no recollection of the County Home I know was there, as my late cousin Peg Townsend had a photo of me with my mother on the big porch of the administrative building when I was maybe one or one and a half years old.
At one time almost every county had such a facility, but the advent of Social Security and other aid programs has eliminated most, if not all, of them.
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