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Mercer County Poorhouse

Mercer County Poorhouse - photo courtesy the Poorhouse Lady - see web site link below.

Samuel Darbyshire, in charge of the County Farm from 1868 to 1875

(photo courtesy Mary Mertz) Aledo Weekly Record, June 6, 1864 reporting on meeting of the Board of Supervisors: "Resolved, That William M. Hays, James M. Wilson, and John T. McGinness be appointed a committee to superintend the County Farm and Infirmary for the ensuing year." (Indicating that the county farm was operated on a fiscal year basis) History of Mercer County 1882 "Whenever children are admitted it is the rule to advertise at once for homes for them, and where possible secure their adoption by good families. Where this is not possible, they are allowed to go and work for their board, or board and clothing, according to their capabilities.

Known by various names - County Poor Farm, County Poorhouse, Almshouse, Mercer County Home, County Infirmary. The Farm was established in the early 1850's for care of indigent persons in Mercer County (see the Vanatta Page under Gersham Vanatta for acquisition of the land for the poor house.) A record of those indigent persons comes to us through the Almshouse Register. We have obtained a copy of the Mercer County Register for the period 1859-1900 and will include information from the register in various family histories. Many of the people were not related to Mercer County families, having arrived at the county via the Mississippi River.

If a family member is found here one must understand that in the 19th century there was no kind of welfare system and people "down on their luck" were sometimes sent to the County Farm if relatives were unable to care for them. They became working members of the farm and contributed to its support. It was also the only kind of "orphanage" available in Mercer County.

There is a wonderful Web Site by The Poorhouse Lady containing much information on the almshouses in America. It includes an excerpt from page 482 of "History of Mercer and Henderson Counties, 1882" giving the history of the establishment of the Mercer County Infirmary. There is also a searchable index of the Mercer Count almshouse register. If you find your ancestor in this index and can provide a date we will attempt to look up further information for you in the register (email on the About Us Page. The online index gives only the year the person was in the almshouse but the actual register copy has the full name, age, birthplace, date admitted, what for, who admitted them, and when and how they were discharged.

The Almshouse Register was kept on forms furnished by the State of Illinois. The recommended information to be gathered included: Sex; Age at last birthday; Occupation before admission; Civil Condition (married or single); Birthplace; Parentage (unfortunately only U. S. is written as birthplace if that is the case); Residence before admission; Education (ability to read and write); Health (including type of sickness or disability if any); Habits (regarding spiritous liquors); Property (brought to the Almshouse); Authority for Admission (person at whose request or order the inmate was admitted); Supposed cause of Pauperism (such as intemperance, insantiy, idiocy, blindness, broken leg, orphan, bastardy, etc.). The Mercer County Register is quite complete, unfortunately some of it is unreadable.

The list of those who were stewards or superintendents of the Farm is given in the 1882 Mercer County History: "Joseph G. Gilmore leased and managed the farm the first three years. It was then placed under the charge of committees, as before mentioned, who employed stewards to care for the inmates, etc. While the building was in progress, Tyler McWhorter, as chairman of the building committee, had the oversight of the farm, and Justus Southwell and William Clark held the stewardship under his administration. Then came Mr. Riddell for nine years; Samuel H. Darbyshire [photo above] from 1868 to 1875; John W. Dihel from 1875 to 1880; and from February, 1880, to the present time [1882], Mr. J. McWillis, who is now holding the position for a third term. His salary is $600, which is at least $400 less than should be paid."

The Aledo Weekly Record article quoted above tells us that a committee supervised the farm in fiscal year 1864/1865.

The number of inmates averaged about thirty per year, with fifty-four being on the books at one time under Mr. Darbyshire. The inmates were all required to perform such labor as they were fitted for; the women doing their own cooking, washing, ironing, and chamber work, and a part of their own sewing; while the men worked in the fields or about the barns. Special provisions were made of cages or barred windows and doors when needed. When children were admitted, advertisements for homes for them were made at once and when possible, adoption was secured. Where this was not possible they were allowed to work for their board, or board and clothing, according to their capabilities. The records for children become important as the Register tells who took the children out and might indicate a possible adoption.

A necessary adjunct to the Farm was the Mercer County Farm Cemetery, located in Perryton Township, Section 33. The following burials were noted there when the DAR ladies walked down the Mercer County Cemeteries in the 1960's.
James Williams 1858-1931.
John Lane 1846-1929.
Edward Pennel 1848-1928.
Emma Thirtyacre 1856-1928.
Oscal Peterson 1859-1924.
Jobe Haywood 1847-1927.
Anna Johnson 1831-1918.
Nels Blouten 1840-1920.
Silas B. Graham 1868-1934.
Caroline Young 1822-1918.
Addison Moorman 1850-1916.
Baby Young 1915-1915.
James Hoy 1837-1914.
William Grover 1851-1914.
Sol Smith 1858-1931

Additional Information Sources

Another source of Almshouse records is of course the census

1860 Census. In 1860 we find Humphrey Riddell, age 58, farmer, born Maryland, in charge of the County Farm and living there with his family: Mary A., 42, Pa; James, 15, Oh; Lilitia, 13, Oh; Emma, 8, Oh; Charles H, 5, Oh; Eddy, 2, Oh. According to the Mercer County History above Mr. Riddell was in charge of the farm for 9 years. Roxanna Fuller, 18, born Maine, was working as a domestic for the family. Inmates listed at that time were Jonas Isaacson, 45, born Sweden; a Reeves family: Joel, 32, born Pa; Mary A., 27, born Oh; Wm, 3, Il; Geo, 2, Il; Didamus Black, 18, Oh; Joseph Wing, 23, Me; Hannah Gurley, 18, Pa; Mary Peterson, 18, Sweden; Sarah Golden, 71, NJ; Elizah E. Whilhite, 30, In; Eliza Bunker, 40, Me; Mary Bunker, 2, Maine; Riley Sisk, 26, In. This is useful as the early pages of the register are poorly filmed and unreadable. The only one we can barely make out is Didamus Black, born Ohio, listed as the first person on the Register admitted April 5, 1859. His residence is given as Millersburg, cannot read and write, health good, abstains from liquor. The supposed cause of pauperism is unreadable. The remarks column gives a date of discharge of August 1885 "died of cansor." Since he is not found there in the 1870 or 1880 census, we suspect he may have been in and out of the Almshouse at various times.

1870 Census. Samuel Darbyshire (photo above), 36, farmer, born Ohio is in charge. Wife Phebe, 49, born Ohio, and daughter Jenny, 10, are with him. The inmates are: Henry William, 73, Ma; Henry Fay, 78, Vt; Elizabeth King, 40, Il; Bell Jay, 30, Il; Lydia Coplin, 79, Ma; Lizzie Wooderd, Il; Sarah Fooler, 35 (idiotic), Il; Eliza Willheart, 42, Il; Sarah Stanton, 25 (blind, Il; Richard Black, 35 (idiotic), Oh; Joseph Wing (idiot), 30 Ma; John Hall, 35, Pa; Logan Smother (insane), Il; Samuel Chaple, 9, Il; Martha Garrison, 34 (idiot), Il; Clayton Hill, 65, NY; Peter Hodge, 22, farm laborer, born Pa . Eliza Willheart is the same Elizah Whilhite listed in 1860. She was the second admission to the farm April 22, 1859 and died there with consumption on October 14, 1878. With the listing of Peter Hodge as farm laborer, we are not certain he is an inmate - he may have been only a worker on the farm and because the early records are faded we cannot locate him among the inmates.

1880 Census. James Willis, Overseer of Poor Farm; age 38, born Oh, parents born Oh; Mary Willis, wife, 35, born Ohio, father born Ireland, mother born Ohio; Elizabeth Thom, sister-in-law, 40, born Ohio, father born Ireland, mother born Ohio. According to the Mercer County History the name was McWillis, so we are not certain which is correct. The inmates were: Samuel Sterns, 35, born Ireland; John Hall, 50, born Pa; Gregory Sproston, 29, born Can; George Achmen, 9, born Pa; David Applegate, 50, born Pa; George Goitten, 27, born Amer; Edward Sea, 14, born Ia; William Shaw, 49, born Ire; Richard Bell, 47, born Il; Logan Smithers, 45, born Amer; Norman Powers, 67, born NY; Richard Black, 50, born Oh; John Ozey, 40, Amer; Anderson Buckley, 45, Oh; Andrew Johnson, 67, Swe; Owen Sullivan, 66, Ire; James Sweezy, 60, Pa; William Day, 22, Tn; Melvina Kopeland, 55, Pa; Jane Holden, 37, Ire; Sarah Moore, 34, Amer; Sarah Fuller, 36, Amer; Saraly Malcomb, 19, Il; Martha Garison, 35, Il; Elizabeth Aught, 65, Ger; Georgia Rhinehart, 7, In, father born Va, mother born Ohio; Elizabeth Rouse, 58, Ger; James Ashenhust, 27, born Ohio, parents born Ohio. The census taker apparently did not take down the birthplace of the parents of most of these people. Perhaps he was taking information from the register and not directly from the inmates. All are listed as "pauper."

1882 - from History of Mercer County 1882, "Among the present inmates are the following, who have been there for eight years or more, with date of entry: Dedimus Black, April 5, 1859; Mrs. King, December 19, 1861; Logan Smithers, June 7, 1864; John Hall, December 30, 1865; Norman Powers, May 12, 1866; Sarah Albee, August 17, 1869; Elizabeth Krouse, October 2, 1871; Richard Bell, May 24, 1874. Sarah Albee is a bit of a mystery - she was age 51 when admitted and we don't know if that is her own surname or a married name. She is not listed there in either the 1870 or 1880 census but the Almshouse index does indicate she was admitted in 1869.

1890 Census. None available but we may be able to reconstruct who was there from the Almshouse Register.

1900 Census. Well this was interesting - had to use a combination of three sources - the original 1900 census, the original copy of the Mercer County register and the transcription of the index online. The two originals were very difficult to read - in fact almost impossible. Especially bad was the name of the person running the poor farm - it is unreadable on the census and transcribed by as Wikson Zeulinson and his family. It seems much more likely that the name was something like Zielinski as there are many, many of that surname all over the country in 1900, but the 7 persons in this family in Mercer County is the only one listed as Zeulinson and is pretty obviously wrongly transcribed.

The inmates listed were: John Hall; Gregory Sprostin; William Day; Caroline Young; Jane Holden; Thomas Morrisey; Thomas Haney; Mary Johnson; John Nelson; Melvina Copley; Charley Lundean; Norman Bradford; Henry Alger; Elizabeth Woodard; Walter Fuller; Thomas McNeal; Rhoda Watson; Thomas Middaugh; Mike Fitzgerald; Augusta Henson; Katie Sloan; Swan Johnson; Eliza Houk; John Lane; Ann Augustine; Dennis Dacy; Bell [Isabella] Jay; Jinnie Warren; Minerva Bates; Allen Williams; Leerilda Williams [these two actually listed in the register as A. B. Williams and wife] ; Emma Thirtyacre; Amos Stenson; Jonas Nolan. Take this list with a grain of salt as much is interpretation. There is an additional name transcribed as Fidala Flqugio which is pretty well recognized as a bad translation - this name could be associated with nothing in the online index or in the actual register.