Almshouse Provided Shelter for County's Paupers
by Robert Uzzillia, Cairo Town Historian
Article appeared in the Greenville Press, March 21, 2002. Article reprinted by permission of the author.
When hard times came to rural New Yorkers during the Colonial period it was often a harrowing experience. In some cases, many towns, including some in Greene County, sold the labor of paupers at public auction. The amount bid was usually commensurate with the person's ability to work. This practice was often unsatisfactory for both the bidder and the pauper, as it rarely resulted in a long term arrangement.
To alleviate this problem, the County Poorhouse Act was passed in 1824 in Greene and 15 other New York State counties. The following year, the Greene County Board of Supervisors formed a committee to determine an adequate site for a "Poor House," or "Almshouse," to which it would sometimes be referred. A centralized location was chosen to minimize travel time from the other towns. An 11 acre site in Cairo was selected.
From the onset, the Poor House maintained its own farm and those able were expected to assist in the functioning of it. Records indicate during 1862, for example, that 44 tons of hay were produced, 905 bushels of corn, 685 bushels of potatoes, 340 bushels of oats grown and 1,348 pounds of butter churned. Other garden vegetables included peas, beans, turnips, onions, parsnips, beets, carrots, pumpkins, and cabbage. Rye rounded out the field production.
The upkeep and proper treatment of the poor was a large undertaking. The annual budget for the house included the salary paid the Keeper of the Poor, or Overseer, as he would later be referred. The salary for 1862 was $300. Hired help, physicians, teachers, clergy, repairmen and other staff were also required to assure smooth running of the facility.
Each year the Overseer made a report to the Board of Supervisors and gave a detailed account of activities and an inventory of everything in the house, right down to the last knife and fork. Some early years even included a list of the names, if known, of the residents. One such individual was known only as "Crazy Beck," reiterating the misconceptions that being a pauper was somehow linked to mental illness.
During the course of the year, it was common for there to be a turnover rate of about two to one. This meant the resulting number of paupers in the house at the end of the year was about half of what it started. It is presumed that some only needed a temporary place to stay until their situation improved or perhaps family members took them in.
As the 19th century progressed the amount of paupers using the facility remained fairly constant, ranging from a final count of 101 in 1862 to 73 persons in 1883. During this time span, the salary for the Overseer had increased to $450 per year, but the cost to care for the poor had decreased considerably. This is most likely attributable to better farming methods which produced surplus cash crops which more than offset the needs of the population.
While those in charge seemed to be doing an adequate job in providing for the needs of the residents, the facility itself was becoming antiquated. In May of 1882, a committee was formed to provide estimates for building a new structure. Only two years earlier it had been determined by another committee during a visitation that the structure was condemned as "utterly unfit to provide in a humanitarian and Christian manner for its inmates." The amount for erection of the new house was not to exceed $25,000.
Original plans called for a wood structure, as before, but upon suggestion of Supervisor Mulford, it would be built of sturdy and available brick instead. Original estimates of high-priced labor caused a slight delay, but by late 1883, the new edifice was completed.
The furnishings for the new Poor House were not to exceed $700. Frederick Becker was the Overseer at the time.
The structure had two wings, one each for male and female. Also separated were those who might have a contagious disease. (It is believed that those who died from such diseases are buried in unmarked graves on property behind the Shinglekill. The 1867 Beer's Atlas shows a small "hospital" nearby.)
The quite symmetrical, yet elegant structure, was three stories high with long hallways. A mansard roof adorned the third story, along with a cupola or bell tower, probably for calling the residents to meals from their work in the fields. The basement was full height and had two-foot thick masonry walls. Coal was loaded through a chute into bins for the huge heating stoves. The basement also housed a repair shop and laundry room.
The post-Civil War decades saw increasing use of emerging technology and thus greater opportunities for employment. Less people required the services provided at the Poor House during the course of the year. The number declined from 231 in 1883 to 124 by the close of the century. The local growth of railroads and the ensuing burst of tourism would keep many working for years leading up to the Great Depression.
By the 1920's, even the terminology of the poor had changed. The Overseer's title had become Commissioner of Public Welfare, reflecting a more positive message. Also, the notion of hiring extra people to assist with the running of the farm was introduced at this time. This had traditionally been done by residents with minimal assistance from the Overseer and Matron (Overseer's wife) who often assured the residents received religious instruction.
As the emerging nursing industry improved its methods, people in many rural locations, such as Greene County, were able to receive "home care" and the need for a county-run facility diminished.
The house closed as a operating farm and Almshouse in the summer of 1962. It has since provided a "home" for offices of many important county agencies, such as Cooperative Extension, Planning and Youth Bureaus, continuing the site's fine tradition of public assistance to this day.