Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994

Before Welfare: Poor Relief in Douglas County, Missouri

by Linda Myers-Phinney

Linda Myers-Phinney is an historian with the Local Records Program, Missouri State Archives.

In 1933 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, one of the New Deal "alphabet agencies," thrust the federal government into the realm of relief to the poor, albeit on a limited scale which sought only to help states finance their own relief laws. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided the basis of our current welfare system by supplying funds for the aged, blind, disabled, crippled or dependent children, and needy mothers.

Prior to the 1930s, Missouri state statutes placed responsibility for the poor and indigent squarely on counties. The Missouri Revised Statues of 1879 specified that "Poor persons shall be relieved, maintained and supported by the county of which they are inhabitants'' and made the county court responsible for establishing and administering a relief fund. Two methods were used: "outdoor relief," the distribution of funds to indigent persons in private homes (whether their own or someone else's), and "indoor relief," the establishment of institutions where indigents would reside and be supported. The Statutes defined the poor as "Aged, infirm, lame, blind or sick persons, who are unable to support themselves, and when there are no other persons required by law and able to maintain them." Individual determinations and specific relief measures were left to the discretion of county courts. So in practice the courts had considerable latitude in dispensing aid, enabling them to grant relief to the destitute.

The State did maintain some control over local relief programs. Though legally accountable to the county courts, persons entrusted with the care of the poor were also required to post bonds allowing the State to attach their personal property in case they failed to fulfill their duties. The counties themselves were answerable to the State Board of Charities and Corrections. Local operational authorities were county Boards of Visitors, charged with inspections for "effective and economical administration, the cleanliness, discipline and comfort of...inmates." Boards of Visitors reported to the State Board of Charities and Corrections.

Douglas County, in the southwest central Missouri Ozarks, has records documenting its relief efforts from the mid-1880s. The earliest records are "pauper bonds." The county court accepted bids for the care of indigents for a length of time varying from three to twelve months. The court "sold" the pauper to the lowest bidder, paying the bidder the amount of the bid to care for the pauper. If the lowest bid were $50, the bidder would receive $50 per person from the county. The bidder in turn provided a performance bond to the State of Missouri. The bidder was to use all of the county stipend for the use of the poor, providing suitable food and clothing, and treating his charges "humanely," "properly," and "kindly." The 1888 bonds also required the contracting caretaker, referred to as the Keeper of Paupers, to provide "necessary medical attention" for his charges.

The county court ordered the sheriff to "sell all of the paupers within said County at the east door of the Court House...to the lowest and best bidder." The winning bidder himself was instructed to keep the paupers and house them together in one place. This effectively prevented him from "selling" them to anyone else for less than the county paid him.

It is unclear whether indigents were actually paraded before bidders or sold in absentia. There is some evidence that the Keeper of Paupers could expect reasonable work to be done by those in his care. Their appearance would suggest to him their general vigor and ability to work, thereby effecting bids.

By 1899 the method of choosing the Keeper of Paupers had been revised. There is no evidence of a public sale being held that year; and by 1901 the court merely received bids for the care of paupers as it might for any other contractual service. After accepting bids, a contract was awarded for the following year for care of any persons the court recognized as needy.

Not all of the county's poor were cared for by the pauper keeper, however. Those who had a home and were able to care for themselves were paid a stipend out of the county pauper fund. Some amounts were determined by the court and paid periodically, as was the "allowance" made to William Fletcher of $21.00 per calendar quarter. Others were simply piecemeal payments, such as that requested by Isaiah Collins for caring for "Martha Stone a totaly [sic] destitute person during her sickness and death at his house," and $2.00 paid for digging a pauper's grave for her. Not all claims were paid as presented; the county court sometimes discounted them. On one $18.00 claim for medical care, only $9.00 was paid; and a local merchant who billed $4.25 for making a coffin for a county charge was, "after some investigation," paid only $2.00.


Any impoverished person proven to be "insane and idiotic and requiring the attention of one or more persons half the time" could to be kept at home by a relative and supported by the county; but the supervising relative would be paid less than the Keeper of Paupers. The court took this course several times: one man was granted an allowance for keeping his wife, and several parents were assisted for children they kept at home.

A similar method was used to care for the indigent insane who had no families. The determination of insanity was left to the Probate Court and the jury it impaneled. A person judged incompetent was assigned a guardian to care for him or her and to administer any estate. Such probate proceedings and the cost of care were to be paid out of the person's estate. If the person were poor, the county became financially responsible. Such was the case of Julia Strong. Determined by the Probate Court to be of "unsound mind and incapable of managing her affairs" Julia was remanded to the custody of a guardian. Approximately two and one half months later her guardian billed the county court for board and maintenance in the sum of one dollar per day plus clothing expenses, a total of $85.20.

State statutes granted counties the authority to acquire land and erect, support, staff, and govern "poor houses." Poor houses were conceived not as purely charitable institutions, but as places where the poor earned their keep at least partially by converting "raw materials...by their labor into articles of use, and...disposing of the products of such labor and applying the proceeds thereof to the support of the institution.'' In rural areas this usually meant agricultural pursuits, commonly earning the county poor house the name of "county farm" or "poor farm."

Although Douglas County considered establishing "indoor" (institutional) relief as early as 1899, it did not do so until 1916. The sixty-acre Douglas County Poor Farm sold a variety of products which included feed and cane fodder for livestock, sorghum syrup, cream and eggs (the most frequently sold products), both sweet and Irish potatoes, rhubarb, cows, chicks and mature chickens, hay, potato plants, tomatoes, piglets, beef hides, butchered hogs, cherries, and veal calves. The inventory of crops produced in 1916 included fifty bushels of corn, eight bushels of white potatoes and twelve of sweet potatoes, six bushels of tomatoes, twenty-five gallons of sorghum molasses, three bushels of dried fruit, fifty-five shocks of cane cattle feed, five to six bushels of cow peas, approximately two and one half tons of hay, corn fodder, and five bushels of turnips. And all this in a year when there were only nine inmates!

While some of the work was hired out, Douglas County Poor Farm residents did much to provide for themselves. Shoe repairs were done on the premises, as were farm repairs and improvements, food preservation, presumably soap- and hominy-making, and even coffin building. The county farm inventory completed January 1, 1935 indicated no shortage of domestic activities; products on hand included a cream separator and churn, bread pans, 312 quarts of home-canned peaches, sixty-eight quarts of blackberries, twelve gallons of peach butter, three gallons of apples, three gallons of pickles, thirteen gallons of sauerkraut, ten gallons of tomatoes, eight gallons of jelly, a sausage grinder, a grindstone (for sharpening knives and implements), three wash tubs, two wash boards, one washing machine, and one hundred pounds of soap.

According to early accounts, few items were purchased for personal use by inmates. Total Poor Farm expenditures for the eight weeks from March 9, 1925 through May 2, 1925 were $286.85. Of this amount only $32.70 was not directly related to farming activities: $25.00 for food, $1.60 for kitchen utensils, .60 for pills, and $5.50 for dry goods. Food purchases in those years were mostly for staples such as sugar, salt, crackers, flour, cornmeal, and coffee.

As the years passed, residents began to enjoy more manufactured or processed goods for personal use, and more diverse foodstuffs. Purchases in 1924 included bread, spices, tobacco, soap, and raisins; by 1930 chocolate, bologna, and hominy were added, along with Oxydol and Rinso for washday. At Christmas in 1931 inmates were treated to candy, peanuts, oranges, bananas, and cranberries. In 1931 and 1934 they received ready-made clothing items, a new luxury.

And what of the residents, called "inmates" or "patients," who peopled this scene? A look at the poor farm register gives a glimpse of them. Supervised by a superintendent, and his wife who served as matron, they ranged in age from 20 to 83, included both men and women, and came to the farm for a variety of reasons. Some were admitted for brief stays, and some lived out their lives there. The number of residents averaged about nine except during the Depression, when it jumped to twenty-four in 1935 and eighteen in 1936. Apparently all were homeless as well as penniless, because the county continued to provide "outdoor relief," i.e. assistance for home living, to others not at the county farm.


The Douglas County Farm provided a haven for the indigent terminally ill. E.S. Lewis died of tuberculosis two months after admission and Edd S. was admitted with typhoid fever and died eleven days later.

The farm also provided stopgap assistance to those in tight circumstances, such as the Whitley family. Mr. Whitley, 44, was admitted because his "physical condition renders him unable to earn a living." His wife was admitted, because the "condition of [her] Husband renders it nessesary [sic] for her to have help." Their five children, aged two to thirteen, accompanied them. "Poverty" was listed as the cause of their need. Five days later the children were sent to the Orphans' Home in Springfield, because the county home did not keep children. The Whitleys stayed for nine months, when "the woman run [sic] away...sometime at night [of] unknown cause." Two weeks later Mr. Whitley "went away...[as] his wife [has] taken him to care fore [sic] him."

John T. was admitted with his wife and small son, who, although they did not meet county residency requirements, were "destitute of eney [sic] thing to live on." Leaving only five days later because the child could not be kept, the family at least ate and had shelter for those few days.

The majority of patients were incapable of supporting themselves, often because of age or physical limitations. Sometimes they were only vaguely described as physically or mentally unable to support themselves, sometimes more specifically described as deformed, blind, feeble minded, paralyzed, lame, deaf, mute, or simply "to [sic] old to support" themselves. John L. was evaluated as being "Slightly disabled and shiftless [which] renders him unable to earn a living." Apparently this assessment was correct as far as his ability to support himself; John L. was in and out of the county farm numerous times over a period of twenty-one years. He finally died there.

The County Court formulated rules governing operation of the Poor Farm. They established the authority of the superintendent and matron, restricted inmates from leaving without permission, prohibited quarreling, directed the inmates to keep themselves and "their apartments clean and sanitary," and required them to "do manual labor...in farming, cleaning, house work or in careing [sic] for each other, or any other work as the overseer or matron may direct." The rules were enforced by measures which seem abhorrent today: barred windows; whipping; and being locked up, shackled, hobbled, or chained to a bed. (Several of the inmates restrained by such methods were former patients at State Insane Asylum No. 3. They were sometimes violent and, being disturbed and disoriented, wandered off.) Apparently these measures were normal for the time and place. The county farm was visited regularly by the county court and was accountable to the State Board of Charities and Corrections. No censorious remarks appear in county records as a result of those visits.

What were the inmates' reactions to the regulations? Many simply ran away in the night, while others more overtly expressed their opinions. One young woman was whipped for "disobedience and offering to fight the matron" and later disciplined again for "quareling [sic] at" the matron. John L., that "shiftless" inmate, once left after becoming angry with the superintendent; and sixty-four year old Susan G. ran away because she "was not allowed [sic] to pass notes and spark Calven," another resident. Interestingly, Calven did not run away with her, but departed later by himself after "he was told to be more sanitary." For the majority of whom no anecdotal details were recorded, the emotional effect of life on the county poor farm is a matter of speculation. The attitude of superintendent and matron toward their charges were doubtless crucial. And it is important to remember that while methods of control were not particularly enlightened, the purpose and result were humane.

By 1941 the Douglas County Poor Farm had outlived its usefulness, due to Federal relief assistance and the growing prosperity of the early World War II years. The County Court contracted private care for the remaining county farm patients, sold the movable property, and rented the farm.

Many things can be concluded about such local government relief efforts. It surely cannot have been pleasant to have been homeless and poor, be publicly auctioned off to the lowest bidder, be institutionalized, lack the freedom to come and go, and be subject to rules governing even personal hygiene and conversation. The more fortunate indigent had family to take care of them at county expense; that fate somehow seems less publicly humiliating than the "indoor" alternatives. The benefits of local relief were elementary; but it made the difference between starvation and survival for the very poor. A man entered the courthouse some sixty years after the county had granted five dollars in relief to his mother, in order to repay the money. He did so over protest, recounting that no one could ever know how large and important that sum had been to his mother and her two small sons.


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