While there were at least three known 19th century poorhouses in Patrick County, for the purpose of this article, we will discuss the one located in what would become known as the “Big A” section of the county.
Most individuals who lived at the county poorhouses were orphaned, elderly, or disabled without the means (or close family) to support themselves. Individuals only gained entry to the poorhouse if they were deemed to be “worthy poor,” people not responsible for their poverty and incapable of improving their own life. Children sometimes lived at the poorhouse for short periods with a disabled parent, but the overseers usually apprenticed them to a farmer or tradesman.
In the 1850 census, William Critz was the 62-year-old overseer of the poor in the Big A section of the county. The following is a verbatim list of the residents that lived there: Alexander Murphy, age 78, John Campbell (Blind), age 78, Daniel Spencer, age 78, Susan Hensley, age 70, Winney Bonds, age 60, Dafney Mitchel (Black), age 60, Susan Jones, age 50, Sally Parr, age 35, Robert Taylor, age 78, Rachiel Masten, age 34, Thomas Vaughn, age 14, Rhoda Wood, age 13, Mary Martin, age 13, Gilbert Wood, age 7, Susan Martin, age 6, Lucinda Martin, age 4, Elizabeth Williams, age 4, Nancy Parr, age 4, Catherine Parr, age 2, Edward Parr, age 2, Emily Martin, age 1, Frances Chapman, age 35, and Polly Willard, age 23.
In the Patrick County Death Records, we see Winney Bonds name again, dying of flux (dysentery) on 15 August 1854. The place of death was listed as the poorhouse and William Critz was registered as the informant. In the next two weeks, Critz would report the deaths of three more poorhouse residents, Polly Hurd, age 46, Polly Chivess, age 73, both dying of flux, and even more tragically, a one-month-old baby died at the poorhouse on the sixth of September 1854.
Mrs. Lucy Clifton Nowlin shared the following recollections about the poorhouse in her neighborhood. The following are her words, “The county poorhouse farm in the Big A community was a large farm with over 100 acres of land located on what is now known as Hazelwood Drive. There were two main houses for the poor, the overseer’s house, and other barns and outbuildings scattered about the farm. The poorhouse school was built on the farm, but was not just for the poor, but for the entire community. The first Caesarean Section operation in Patrick County was performed on a mother at the poorhouse according to the March 20, 1920, issue of “The Enterprise.” Dr. Divers performed the surgery, assisted by Dr. Akers and Dr. Ford and both mother and baby lived.”
Mrs. Nowlin also said “there was a building on the grounds for making coffins which were crude wooden boxes. When one died, they would shroud them, wrap them in a sheet, and place them in one of the handmade coffins. They would have a brief ceremony with scripture and a few words and bury them in a cemetery on the farm with only rocks for markers. The burying ground has since grown over with trees and timber has been cut several times.”
The picture of the “Poorhouse School” in the “Big A” section of Patrick County was taken on March 3, 1911. It was originally shared in the Enterprise on February 23, 1972. Remember that this poorhouse school was built for the children of the entire community, not just children of the poorhouse. Pictured on the back row, left to right are Sue Blackard Hazelwood, Sue Wigington Goode, Berkeley Gray, Nellie Gray Scott, Anice Rogers Dalton, Buck Rogers, Sam Hazelwood, Walter Gray, and Ernest Shelton. Middle row is Jim Wigington, Ivor Shelton, Dick Blackard, Jennie Blackard Lawson, Luther Hazelwood, Russell Fulcher, Irvin Hazelwood, John Hazelwood, and May Wigington Wagoner. Front row is Virginia Shelton, Mamie Branch, Clytie Gilbert Burton, Ellie Blackard, Clemmie Gilbert Holt, Louvie Rogers, Jean Blackard Gilbert, Grace Blackard Hazelwood, Clarice Fulcher, Mildred Wigington Belton, Byrd Fulcher, and Teacher Miss Kate Smith.
Legislators believed that merging poorhouses into regional facilities would save local governments money by bringing a larger number of needy to one location with a higher quality of care than counties could provide individually. The Virginia legislature enacted a law allowing consolidation in 1918. The regional poorhouse in Chatham, Virginia started in 1930 and served the residents of Patrick, Henry, and Pittsylvania counties. This poorhouse morphed into what is now known as the Oak Grove Residential Care facility.
Records obtained from the Patrick County Historical Museum showed that in the ledgers from 1931 through 1934, Patrick County residents with the following surnames were housed at the Chatham poorhouse: Conway, Huff, Shelton, Puckett, Thomas, Wilson, Loggins, Clark, Joyce, Chaney, and Lewis. Ledgers were kept that showed the exact number of days that each person was a resident at the poorhouse so the county could be billed for their care.
Next time, we will continue our discussion about the Big A community, moving on to the Big A school built in 1920. Thank you so much to Mrs. Lucy Clifton Nowlin for information on the neighborhood poorhouse and farm. Woody may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.