Michigan’s Old Poor Farms (and One Particular Disposal Method)
Something you don’t hear much of anymore are county poor farms. Often called a ‘poor house’ or ‘county farm’, these places became shelters for destitute citizens: the alcoholic, feeble, handicapped, homeless, indolent, injured, insane, mentally challenged, orphaned, poverty-stricken, senile, sick, and transient. These homes accepted all ages, races, religions, and sexes.
Just about every Michigan county had a poor farm/house but not many are left – most have been vacated, abandoned, renovated, or just plain torn down.
An 1830 Michigan law required every state county to have a home for the needy…the law was passed as a way to solve the poverty problem.
Poor farms were set up so the male inmates could do farm chores like pitching hay, milking cows, picking fruit, weeding, gardening, feeding the animals, etc…..but when it came to running farm machinery, they really weren’t much help due to their poor physical conditions. The females were often seen helping inside in the kitchen or sewing.
Many times family members of poor farm ‘inmates’ didn’t even know their relative(s) were in a home. So when an inmate passed away, it wasn’t uncommon for the bodies to be buried on the grounds. Many bodies were buried without markers, while some were donated to science or college/medical school laboratories…and some were incinerated.
There was a poor farm in Shiawassee County that began in the late 1840s. Just a few feet down the road is the Shiawassee County Cemetery where many deceased inmates were laid to rest, even though there are hardly any markers. The surprising – maybe shocking to some – thing about the property (which is now a private residence) is that there is an old incinerator that was used to…..yes…..dispose of the deceased that passed away during wintertime. If the ground was too frozen to dig a burial plot, there was no other choice but to use this method. There are pictures of the incinerator included in the gallery below.
The Poor Farms & County Homes of Michigan