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Over the Hill to the Poor House
The Story
Part 1: They didn't just die - they disappeared

Part 2: Seeking dignity for the dead

Part 3: The search for family members

Part 4: Poor conditions at poorhouses

Part 5: The worthy vs. the unworthy poor

Part 6: Today's poor - better off?


View images of a forgotten history

  • 1925 report on conditions at poorhouses
  • Articles on poorfarm law
  • A history of the Anoka County poorfarm
  • Johnson County, Iowa, poorfarm
  • Wythe County, Va., poorhouse farm


    Producers: Dan Gunderson and Chris Julin
    Broadcast editor: Euan Kerr
    Online editor: Melanie Sommer
    Art director: Ben Tesch
    Production supervisor: Michael Wells
    Narrator: Earl Leaf
    Historical voice: Steve Stark

  • Over the Hill to the Poor House
    July 29, 2002
    By Dan Gunderson and Chris Julin, Minnesota Public Radio

    The American dream is freedom and financial security. But it's possible to lose everything. One day you have a job, a family, a house. Then there's an accident, an illness, a poor choice. One misfortune piles on another.

    One hundred years ago, if you lost your health, or your mind, you might have faced the poorhouse. It was a terrifying possibility - the slide from working, healthy person to the poorhouse, an anonymous death, and an unmarked grave.

    Thousands of people died in poorhouses, and today we park cars and grow corn on their graves. Poorhouses disappeared after World War II, but some people wonder how far we've come from a time when poor people were simply thrown away.

    History of the Poorfarm
    It was thought poorhouses would be a more efficient way of caring for the poor, thus reducing cost for local government. It was also anticipated that by forcing people to go to a less than pleasant place if they wanted public assistance, many poor could be discouraged from seeking help.

    Working at the Poorhouse
    The poorhouse is a mostly forgotten part of American history. But a few people still remember - especially those who worked in the poorhouses.

    Looking for Graves
    Many of the residents of Minnesota's poorhouses and poorfarms ended up in unmarked graves - in unmarked cemeteries that few people know about. Now some are trying to find and preserve those graves, to provide the dead the dignity they did not have in life. View photos of poorhouse cemeteries

    Music of the Poor House
    A few artists were inspired to write and sing about the poorhouse experience.

  • Over the Hill to the Poor-house, a poem by Will Carleton
  • Songs inspired by Carleton's poem

  • Take a a multi-media tour of a poorhouse (RealAudio)
  • What life was like at the Brown County poorfarm
  • A poorfarm in Johnson County, Iowa is a reminder of history

    The last poorhouse?
    The Town Lodging House in Easthampton, Mass., may be the only poorhouse in the U.S. that's still in operation. It's been housing poor people since 1891.

    Talk About This Story
    How does society treat poor people today, compared to the era of the poorhouse? Share your thoughts in the MPR Forum.