The Randolph County Poor Farm

While it may seem like something out of a Charles Dickens novel to us now, the operation of a county poor farm was one of the functions of Randolph County’s government in the early part of the 1900s.

By 1900, the probate judge and county commission had rented a “poorhouse” in Louina [across the river from Wadley] for the county’s most destitute citizens. The foreman of the grand jury at that time said, “We hope this experiment will be a success, but would suggest that perhaps it would be better to locate said house near the center of the county if suitable houses could be obtained.”

In 1902, the county commission purchased 140 acres of partially cleared land southwest of Wedowee [County Road 132] to be used as a pauper farm. The superintendent was Jasper Berry. Other superintendents mentioned over the years are G.W. Heard, Sam Young, W.M. Simpson and H.D Landers. The value of this land in 1937 was listed at $3,000.

While we have been unable to locate a photo of the poor farm near Wedowee, here is an example of the poor farm in Etowah County.

When the poor farm population is mentioned, it typically ranged between six and 12 people, male and female, black and white, though housed separately.

When the Randolph County Medical Society met to elect its officers, the group would name one among them to call on patients at the county’s poor farm.

Pastors from the community would come on Sunday afternoons and share a sermon at the poor farm. The ladies of the community would provide food baskets on holidays.

There are approximately 40 people buried in the poor farm’s cemetery. Included in these are Jackson Ray, who clamed to be 101 years old, and Sherman Stephens, who was convicted of killing his father and publicly executed by hanging outside the courthouse in 1903.

When the grand jury met in the spring and fall, in addition to inspecting the courthouse and county jail as it does now, the group would also visit the poor farm. The reports would typically be complimentary, but occasionally would include recommendations for improvements.

1904: “We find the inmates of the poorhouse very comfortably cared for, and kindness thus shown to our unfortunate people is well bestowed.”

1905: “We speak in the highest terms of the present manager and management of the farm. We recommend further that said manager be allowed free of rent his one-horse crop.”

1910: “The inmates are treated in a humane manner and are provided with the necessities of life.”

1912: “They seem to be in the hands of a humane man who looks after their comfort and properly provides for them.”

1920: “The inmates report they are well cared for and provided with comfortable quarters and sufficiency of wholesome food. We wish to commend Mr. W.M. Simpson, the superintendent, for his humane care of the unfortunate poor.”

1923: “They appear to be very well fed and clothed, and they expressed themselves as well satisfied and state that they are kindly treated by Mr. Simpson and wife, who care for the home and the inmates thereof.  We find the premises clean, sanitary and very comfortable, except that the other houses are not screened.”

1924: “Remarkable improvement has been made in this institution since the last inspection. The buildings have been repaired, ceiled, supplied with new steps, good concrete hearths and two coats of white paint have been applied. The spring for water supply has been protected, and the whole place presents an attractive appearance … The inmates expressed themselves as very much pleased with conditions. They stated that they receive sufficient food of good quality and that they are well treated at all times.”  – Glenn Andrews, state prison inspector

1925: “All apartments were cleaned and properly screened against flies and mosquitoes. The bedding was clean and plentiful. The yards were in good condition, and the entire premises presented a neat and well-kept appearance. Two large gardens supply fresh vegetables. Fifty fruit trees have recently been set out on the place.”

1926: “We also find that conditions as to personal cleanliness of some of the inmates are not as good as should be. Complaint is made by some of the helpless people there that washing is not done for them as often as should be, and appearances support the complaint. We urge that this be looked after at once. We also urge that more care be given to sanitation and the prevention of disease at the almshouse. There is some typhoid fever there now, and some conditions of filth tend to promote the possibility of its spread. The place should be cleaned generally. We further recommend that those charged with the duty of committing people to the almshouse exercise greater care as to who is admitted. It appears to us that some are there who are able to support themselves by proper industry directed along right lines. In such cases, the people of the county should not be taxed with the support of these people.”

Recommended improvements over the years included: the addition of ceilings, [window] screens and wooden strips over cracks, repairs to roofs and stove flues, cleaning and sheltering of the well, additional houses, terracing of the farmlands, a change of diet (the furnishing of milk and butter), and placing sick people in a separate space.

The Department of Public Welfare reported eight counties had closed their poorhouses, and where 3,000 people were in such institutions the previous March, only 1,403 were being cared for in this manner in November 1936. The former residents were cared for in private homes with financial assistance from government agencies.

According to the Social Security Administration’s website, the first one-time, lump sum Social Security payments were made in January 1937. Regular monthly Social Security benefits started in 1940, thus making poorhouses obsolete.

By 1937, 63 percent of those on poor farms or in poorhouses in Alabama were above 65 and qualified for old-age pensions if and when they were removed from the almshouse. The average per capita cost of upkeep of these almshouses was estimated to be more than $20 per month.

Randolph County’s pauper farm was phased out between 1936 and 1940. According to Randolph County Commission meeting minutes, Mann Holloway rented the property for the crop year 1940. In 1947, W.Z. Meadows was the high bidder to purchase the 160 acres and buildings of the pauper farm for $2,650.

(Sources: The Randolph Leader, The Roanoke Leader, Randolph County Commission’s recorded minutes and