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 Montgomery County Poor House

-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - Feb, 2007

“Be it enacted by the People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, That it shall be the duty of the board of supervisors of each county in this state, (the counties of Genesee, Yates, Greene, Washington, Rensselaer, Queens, Essex, New York, Montgomery, Suffolk, Schoharie, Chautauqua, Cortland, Dutchess, Orange, Allegany, Richmond, Monroe, Sullivan, Cattaraugus, Kings, Putnam, Delaware, Franklin, Oswego, Otsego, Columbia, St. Lawrence, Rockland, Albany, Tompkins, Tioga, Schenectady, Seneca, Madison, Onondaga, Oneida and Ulster, expected,) at their next meeting after the passing of this act, to direct the purchase of one or more tracts of land, not exceeding the quantity of two hundred acres, and thereon build and erect, for the accommodation, employment and use of the said county, one or more suitable buildings, to be denominated the poor house of the county of _____ and to defray the expense of such purchase and buildings, raise, by tax on estates real and personal, of the freeholders and inhabitants of the same county, …”

This New York State law, passed by the Legislature in 1824, provided for the establishment of county owned poorhouses. The law outlined the duties of the poorhouse superintendent as “exclusive charge, management, direction and superintendence of said poor house” and the occasional establishment of “prudential rules, regulations and by-laws [with the consent of county court judges],” employment and management of servants and officers at the poorhouse, “… and the correction of the refractory, disobedient and disorderly, by solitary confinement therein, and feeding them on bread and water only.” Those indigent persons applying to the county for relief, disorderly persons, and children under the age of fifteen known to be begging door-to-door, were among the individuals sent to the poor house. Of course, we know that the poor house residents also included new immigrants, the mentally challenged and/or disabled, elderly, and single parents with children.

Montgomery County’s first move toward the erection of a poor house was the passage of a resolution in October, 1826, indicating that all towns wishing to build an almshouse to do so at their own expense. The issue was revisited a year later when it was moved and passed by the Board of Supervisors for the county to construct a poor house. Therefore, after several proposals were submitted for various sites on which to build this poorhouse, the Board of Supervisors purchased 150 acres of land and all of its outbuildings in the Town of Glen from Abraham Van Horne. The cost was $4,500 or $30 per acre.

By 1828, the farm was turned over to the county ready for accepting residents, or inmates, as they were then called. The buildings to house the inmates consisted of a two-story main house, 90 x 30 feet, a barn, cow house, and wagon house. The keeper and his family resided in the main house, along with the residents. Insane residents occupied quarters in the rear of the main house. There were several buildings attached to the main house that formed a sort of courtyard with a water trough in the center of the yard.

The garden area near the main buildings proved the self-sufficiency of the farm. Those able-bodied residents were required to perform duties necessary to the functioning of the farm that helped to offset any expenses. The farm, near to the Erie Canal and the West Shore Railroad, was actually located on the grounds of the present Montgomery County Correctional Facility on Route 5S, east of the Village of Fultonville.

An 1857 investigation of the Montgomery County Poor House (available online at www.poorhousestory.com/MONTGOMERY.htm)reveals a less than satisfactory image of the living conditions there. For example, the living quarters were described as “dilapidated” and the courtyard’s water fountain “in ample quantity is constantly playing,” however, “the idea of a bath is foreign to the establishment.” The living quarters were not adequately warmed by the stoves during the colder months and with only twelve rooms allowed the residents, there were sometimes “as many as eighteen placed in one room.” Also, the investigator commented on the fact that there was no separation between the sexes, no religious instruction, and medical attention was not adequately provided as one [lunatic] was “sometimes whipped, and he is a cripple.” There were additional complaints of the punishments received by the residents such as shutting them up in a dark cell, whipping, and attaching a ball and chain to their legs. Such conditions were atrocious.

By 1860, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors petitioned and was granted permission to sell the county farm. In 1866, the property was sold to Hiram Sammons for $8,000, at which time, Mr. Sammons was contracted with Montgomery County to care for the poor.

We were fortunate, at the Department of History & Archives, to have information on the layout of this early farm, thanks to the memories of the late Henry Wemple. While the farm was no longer in use as an almshouse during Mr. Wemple’s residence there, his great-grandfather, Robert Wemple, purchased the farm and was contracted by Montgomery County to care for the poor from 1868 to 1898. The layout remained in tact until the 1922 repositioning of the Auriesville Road, or New York State Route 5S as we know it today, moved the road north to where it ran through the main house. Mr. Wemple, from his memory 60 years later, drew a map of the property as it would have looked when it was used as a poor house farm. That map is on file at the Department of History & Archives.

Unfortunately, prior to the 1850 Federal Census, there is no record of those individuals who lived at the County poor house. Although there were inspections, and each federal census listed the names of the residents, it was not until the New York State Legislature passed a law in 1874 requiring the registration of those admitted to the poor houses. The registrations are on microfilm at the New York State Archives.

By 1898, Montgomery County Board of Supervisors transferred the contract from Wemple’s farm outside of Fultonville, to the farm of Snell and Heath in Randall. This venture did not last for very long, however, because a year later, the County purchased the former Schenck farm in Yosts due to its proximity to the New York Central Railroad. Purchased for a sum of $12,500, the farm consisted of 200 acres of land, 80 of which were on the river flats excellent for farming, 60 acres of up-land, and the rest wooded in pine timber. The farm was situated upon a spring that once powered a grist mill. Fritz Vogt, an immigrant folk-artist who traveled through Montgomery County drawing a number of homes, was once a resident there. A cemetery, still maintained by Montgomery County, continues to be the final resting place for a number of residents who passed away while living there.

The County Farm was sold in the early 1990s to a community of Mohawk Indians. Today, the Kanatsiohareke community operates the farm and hosts a number of festivals along with running a bed & breakfast.