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Poor conditions at poorhouses
By Dan Gunderson and Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
July 29, 2002

Erling Berntsten
Erling Bernsten worked at the St. Louis County poorfarm in Duluth when he was a young man. He and other former workers recall those days. Read more about their stories.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

There were thousands of poorhouses across the country, from Massachusetts to California. It's been 50 years since the last true poorhouses closed, and most of the buildings are gone. Only the cemeteries remain. But some of the people who worked in poorhouses are still alive.

These men and women helped old folks get dressed. They gave them baths. They tried to keep alcoholics sober. They gave food and medicine to people who heard voices.

"There were a lot of crafty people then. We don't have them today," says Erling Bernsten, who worked at the St. Louis County poorfarm in Duluth.

"Like this old Swede," Bernsten remembers. "We had a blacksmith shop with a big grindstone. The hand scythe, you know, for cutting grass? It would take him an hour to sharpen up that scythe, and he'd get out there to cut grass, and it'd be like a machine.

He'd lay that grass down just perfect. But then in later years he got disgusted - I suppose they all did - and he climbed up to the third floor and took a swan dive off the top. That was the end of him."

Some poorhouses were clean and had plenty of food. Others were filthy places where people went hungry. It all depended on where you lived, and who was on the county board.

In the 1920s, the federal government sent volunteers to examine more than 2,000 poorhouses. A report concluded that conditions were shameful.

An example of the communications local officials often wrote when faced with decisions about caring for poor or ill people. View more letters.
(Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

"Is it possible the members of the local board at Salem, New Jersey, do not know that the inmates of their old inflammable three-story building - that has no fire escape - sleep on the third floor?

"Is it possible the members of the board of supervisors of Shawnee County, Kansas, do not know their poorhouse and its inmates are infected with bedbugs and body lice?

"Is it possible the local authorities of Anoka County, Minnesota, do not know the miserable dangerous filthy condition of their poor farm?

"It seems the policy of many local boards is to give a pauper just enough to tide him over from one month's misery to the next." (Read the report.)

Next: The worthy vs. the unworthy poor