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The Poor House

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008.

Poor houses, or poor farms, were county or town-run residences where people without means were supported at public expense. They were common in the United States beginning in the middle of the 19th century, and were often home to the elderly, the orphaned, and disabled. People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor, an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poor house.

Use of poor houses declined after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935, and most of these residences disappeared completely by the 1950s. Gene Meador came into the MobileEast Booth in Roanoke, Virginia to talk about his experiences at the poor house his family owned and managed when he was a child.

Gene Meador

“Well, my parents went to this poor house farm at nineteen and twenty-seven. I was two years old. Now, I don’t recall too much that happened until I got in my teenage years, but my father and mother both worked rather hard to provide support to roughly thirty people. During the Depression we started getting more and more people,” says Gene. “We had a number of children at that farm, and one of those children my mother adopted. Her name is Bertha and she has been a delight to our family and still is today. She’s about two years older than me. She did an awful lot of help to my mother because, you know, back in that day you needed a lot of help to provide for these folks.”

Gene’s father and mother kept their tenants busy with work on the farm. Everyone contributed in whatever way they could. “When Bertha came with three, she was nine years old. She could milk so we had another hand that could do that, but she also helped my mother in the kitchen. The other kids would be given jobs feeding the hogs, feeding the pigs picking up, getting eggs and feeding the chickens. We all had something to do. We were not idle. My mother didn’t treat those children any different than me. We were all the same.”

Gene recalls the personal investment his father and mother made in their tenants. “Of the children we had, my mother saw that these children got homes, the county didn’t assist, mother did. She would seek people she thought would take care of a child who’s 7, 8, 9, and 10,” recalls Gene. “A lot of the folks who came were mentally disturbed, quite a few, and it’s true that when a person died my father would walk the floor for two or three days knowing how he had to bury the folks on the farm. I think this probably lead to the early death of my father because he worried so much about the folks. He tried to find the nearest relative. There was no nearest relative and he knew the task was up to him.”

Gene eventually went on to college and later got a job with IBM. The poor house of his childhood was sold by the county at auction to be bid on and purchased by Gene’s good friend Galen Brubaker. His parents’ example has stayed with him and has inspired Gene to continue helping others. When he retired in 1990 he looked for opportunities to continue aiding the less fortunate, and in 1991 he began volunteering for Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM) a nonprofit organization which provides support and services for the homeless and poor. For 17 years Gene has cooked meals two days a week in a soup kitchen operated by RAM. “Their experience with [running the poor house] has certainly effected the way I feel toward the poor. Mother and Dad would bend over backwards to see that each individual would receive the best care that they could.”

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