A HISTORY OF THE HENRY COUNTY POOR FARM/ ALMS HOUSE
By Mary Bergren
Administrator, Hillcrest Home
The State of Illinois has a relatively long period of caring for the poor. The following is quoted from the Illinois State Archivist, who is the Secretary of State. This history of Illinois care of the poor accompanied his release of the Morgan County Poor Farm Record Index, 1850-1932:
Public care of the poor in Illinois began in 1819. In that year, the General Assembly passed a law mandating public care and maintenance of those unable to support themselves and without family support. County overseers of the poor farmed out care of the destitute to private citizens. [Laws of Illinois 1819, p. 127]
In 1839, this system was reauthorized. County commissioners courts were also authorized to establish county poorhouses, at their own discretion, to replace the farm-out system; to hire keepers of the poor, and to levy a property tax for poorhouse support. [Laws of Illinois 1839, p. 138] This poorhouse authorization was renewed in 1845 and 1861. [Illinois Revised Statutes 1945, p. 402; Laws of Illinois 1861, p. 181]
An 1874 law required all keepers (superintendents) of county poorhouses to keep books of account. [Illinois Revised Statutes 1874, p. 754] The superintendent was required to keep a record showing the name of each person admitted to the county poorhouse; the time of his admission and discharge; the place of his birth; whether his dependence resulted from idiocy, lunacy, intemperance, or other causes stating the cause; and is required, at the same time each year, to file with the county clerk of his county a copy of the same, together with a statement showing the average number of persons kept in the poorhouse each month during the year. [Illinois Revised Statutes 1874, p. 758]
In 1917, counties were authorized to establish joint poorhouses and poor farms with other counties; and in 1919, a law provided that all poorhouses and poor farms maintained by counties be called county homes. [Laws of Illinois 1818, p. 638; Laws of Illinois 1919, p. 698] The county home law was renewed in 1935 and 1945. [Laws of Illinois 1935, p. 1055; Laws of Illinois 1945, p. 1139]
In 1949, the Public Assistance Code was passed, making relief of the indigent a function of the new county departments of welfare. County homes were reauthorized only for the care of infirm or chronically ill persons; counties were specifically forbidden from placing destitute but physically healthy person in the county homes. [Laws of Illinois 1939, p. 404] In 1967, the Public Aid code repealed the county home laws and deauthorized the county homes remaining in Illinois. [Laws of Illinois 1967, p. 118].
Henry County located its Poor Farm north of Cambridge, the county seat, on Illinois Route 82. Today that county owned facility is known as Hillcrest Home. In the mid 1800s the Henry County Board created the Poor House. It served as a home for the poor and the homeless. It often served as a home for those who had no where else to turn. Many of the residents were newly arrived immigrants from European countries. Many were ill, injured or crippled. Some stayed for a short time; others stayed for years. Babies were born there. It took on the aspects of a small village.
In 1871 the need for additional space resulted in the construction of a new building at a cost of $50,000. It was said to be the best building in the State of Illinois. Approximately 320 acres of farm grounds was purchased. While it was a farm, the able residents were responsible for raising the crops, caring for the livestock and raising garden produce. The rooms were described as light and airy. On the grounds there was a large infirmary as well as a kitchen, bakery, fruit room, milk room, cold storage place and laundry. Separate private dining quarters were provided for the men and for the women.
The personnel who operated the Poor House and Poor Farm were hired by a Committee appointed by the County Board. While compiling the Index, the volunteers found two January 19, 1907 advertisements in one of the ledger books. The two legal notices were printed in the Henry County Chronicle. The first ad sought a proposal from a warden and wife to take charge of the Poor House and the inmates and the Poor Farm of Henry County. Note that the ad indicates there were two separate entities to be attended by the warden and the matron. The second ad was for a physician for the Inmates of the Poor House at Henry County. In both instances the proposals were to be submitted to the County Clerk by the end of January with a one year contract starting on March 1st.
At this time each township helped with the cost of room and board for the people from their township. It was often stated that the Henry County Infirmary provided some of the older Henry County residents with a home away from home. With the purchase of the 320 acres and the establishment of the Poor Farm, two employees were hired to help farm the land which consisted of 75 acres of corn, 50 acres of oats and balance in hay or pasture. The farm housed 25 cows, 30 head of young stock, 300 laying hens and 6 horses. Some of the farm work was done with a tractor. Two cooks and two cook helpers served meals to the residents at 7 a.m., noon, and 5:30 p.m. The people who lived at the Poor House and Poor Farm helped with the chores as well as growing the food and vegetables for their use.
On Sunday, July 28, 1912 at 4 p.m., the Infirmary accidentally burned to the ground. The fire originated as a result of an attempt to smoke out chimney swallows that were nesting in a ventilator. The fire in the duct spread quickly to the tinder dry attic. Concerned citizens of Henry County arrived by horse and buggy to view the damage, but only the brick shell remained. Fifty-eight residents were living in the Infirmary at the time. Some were taken to the Geneseo Hospital. Others were temporarily sent to neighboring counties. And, some slept on cots in the machine shed.
A decision was made to construct a new building. On September 24, 1912 plans began for a new fire proof structure at a cost of $110,000. The home was divided into three sections, much like the former home, to house the men on one side and the women on the other. The middle section was for the dining and recreation common space. A spacious lawn was place in the front of the building with trees, shrubs and flowers. There were long rows of peonies, irises and roses along the flower-bordered walks.
With the advent of the welfare program in 1949, fewer residents of Henry County needed admission to the Alms House. Henry County took the initiative to become the first county in
Illinois to convert its Infirmary/Poor Farm into a convalescent home. At that time the name was changed from the Henry County Infirmary to the Henry County Convalescent Center. All 120 rooms were redecorated. The hospital and the hospital quarters were completely redone. The individuals living at the Center were referred to as patients. They were paying customers. As to the farming operations, in 1957 Henry County decided to quit operating the farm itself and began leasing out the land. The Center continued to be under the supervision of a Committee of County Board supervisors.
Over time the name in Henry County has been changed. The basis for the various names is found in the legislation of the State. While compiling the Index, the volunteers found a U. S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau form. It had been completed by then Superintendent R. B. Wilson on May 28, 1940. The Bureau asked for the name of the hospital/institution. Mr. Wilson replied that the official name was the HENRY COUNTY HOME. On a separate line he wrote that the former name was HENRY COUNTY INFIRMARY. Then Superintendent Wilson indicated that the kind of institution he administered was an ALMS HOUSE WITHOUT INFIRMARY. The form also asked if the institution had other known names. His answer was the COUNTY FARM and HENRY COUNTY INFIRMARY.
As evidenced by Superintendent Wilsons response the institution has been known under a number of names. In 1970 Henry County Convalescent Home was renamed Hillcrest Home. A skilled care addition was added to the home in 1976. It included a physical therapy room, an activity area, a beauty shop, and an employee classroom. It continues to be owned and operated by the people of Henry County. Day to day operations is coordinated by a licensed nursing home administrator. The Health and Human Services Committee, which is comprised of four Henry County Board members, meets monthly to discuss and review the activities at Hillcrest. Their findings are reported to the Henry County Board each month.
In accord with the laws of the State, the mid 19th century Henry County Alms
House/Poor Farm has evolved into Hillcrest Home, a modern nursing facility complete
with air conditioning, private rooms, cable television and buffet dining. Attendant
therapy and recreational activities are provided for the clients.