Ashtabula County Poorhouse
|Ashtabula County Poorhouse|
|Building Style||Single Building|
Commissioners spent nine months studying various proposals before they determined that Luce’s Kingsville Township farm best fit their original resolution of March 1840 to build the poor house “in (someplace) convenient and suitable as soon as these can be procured at a fair price.” The task of building the poor house went to E.G. Benjamin and Howard Allen, who had the “lowest proposition,” $1,670. The board accepted their bid Feb. 2, 1841, and nine months later settled up with the contractors on their final bill.
The first patient admitted was a 25-year-old man, Dexter Bromer, from Rome Township. Dexter was admitted Jan. 17 and ran away the next day. He returned May 1, 1843, and died on March 19, 1845. Residents in the infirmary’s early years ranged in age from infants to 84. Most of the residents were children and young adults. Unable to care or provide for themselves for whatever reason, they came from every corner of the county and from every tragic circumstance. Some stayed long enough to get their affairs in order and return to supporting themselves in society. Others were taken in by family and discharged. Some died of smallpox, tuberculosis or old age. One was found dead in the swamp. The infirmary was funded by property taxes. In 1845, commissioners set the tax rate for the poor house at 1.5 mills per dollar of property value. Another mill was levied for the expenses of operating the poor house and one-half mill for debts related to the infirmary.
The total of 3 mills for the poor house was a big chunk of property taxes. Residents paid only one-half mills for bridges and 5 mills for overall county operations. The infirmary provided housing for 65 residents, and judging from an artist’s rendering done in the 1850s, it was a fine frame building surrounded by pastures and wood fences. It was a working farm, to which more acreage was added in 1851, and inmates capable of physical labor were expected to contribute to their upkeep. A foreman (later director) and matron oversaw the day-to-day operations under the direction of a three-member board.
By its very nature, the poorhouse was an ever-expanding library filled with volumes of human misery and woe. But on Feb. 2, 1858, the infirmary itself became a tragic story. Late in the afternoon of that day, a Mrs. Huldah Morrison, an inmate, asked a small boy to hand her a lighted stick with which to light her pipe. For whatever reason, Huldah instead thrust the glowing stick into the straw tick of her mattress and opened the door to her room to ensure a draft. The fire spread quickly through the frame building. By the time it was discovered, around 5 p.m., the blaze was well on its way to consuming the home and its occupants. The poorhouse became an inferno in which six inmates were cremated. The victims were Thomas Neno, Joseph Brunson, Eliza Percival, Anna Ellison and a Mr. Minor and Mrs. Bennett.
About 60 of the residents escaped into the winter night. Residents of Kingsville opened their homes to the residents, some of whom had to be sent to other county infirmaries for care. Mrs. Morrison was charged with the crime and sentenced to jail after a jury found her guilty of setting the fire that brought about the deaths of the inmates. Meanwhile, county commissioners tackled the task of rebuilding the infirmary.
In 1858 commissioners set the property tax rates for the infirmary at 0.65 mills for operation and 1 mill for reconstruction. On April 22, 1858, the board accepted a proposal of G.W. Cummings, Ziba Fox and Josiah Hicks to rebuild the home. For some unrecorded reason, however, it was Charles Hall and E.P. Smith of Conneaut who built the second infirmary at a cost of $9,771. Commissioners settled with the builders on March 7, 1860. The infirmary was expanded in 1902, with D.B. and G.A. Slaybaugh performing the work. A women’s wing and men’s annex were added to the imposing structure in 1907. In March 1913, the infirmary’s population was 31 residents aged 16 to 60, and 71 over 60. As to the causes of their “pauperism,” old age was responsible in 30 of the cases, sickness in 45, loss of members in three, deformity in eight and blindness in three. Seventy-two of the inmates were from Ohio; 31 were foreign-born.
The minutes of the infirmary board’s meetings are filled with tragic stories of people whose last stop on life’s journey was the poorhouse. These samples are from 1910-15: A “colored” woman of age 84, who was sick and destitute, was visiting friends in Geneva when she became ill. She stayed with them six weeks until becoming a burden upon the family. Her personal effects, valued at around $50, were liquidated to the benefit of the county, and she was placed in the care of the infirmary. A 55-year-old transient, very sick with fever and having no means with which to pay for his care, was admitted to the infirmary; n Edward, a 42-year-old man from Ashtabula, had been in and out of the infirmary. He was admitted once again in 1912, “sick, drunk and destitute.”
Over the course of the 20th century, the infirmary lost its “poor house” stigma and, eventually, the concept of having to labor for one’s keep on the farm was abolished. Nevertheless, the records of the infirmary board indicate that when an aged resident entered the infirmary, all their possessions and their pension checks were turned over to the county in exchange for the security of a place to sleep, three meals a day and medical care.
For many years, Dr. C.L. Fox of Kingsville served as the infirmary’s physician, earning, in the early 1900s, an annual fee of $300, plus $45 for most all of the medications used at the infirmary. Residents were housed in wards with up to 22 beds in one large room. Fire was a constant fear, with most wards served only by a single staircase and outside metal fire escape. Bedridden patients were housed on the first floor, but there were usually more nonambulatory residents than first-floor beds.
The county added the 55-bed Longview Hospital to the infirmary in the early 1930s to provide care for the chronically ill. The inadequacy of the infirmary building and its manner of operation came into focus in 1960, when the Ohio Department of Public Welfare pointed out numerous deficiencies. In July 1966, the Department of Industrial Relations found 11 building code violations. Voters eventually passed a $1.68 million bond issue that allowed the county to construct and equip a new county home on the south side of Route 84. The new home opened in November 1971. The infirmary was demolished in December 1973, and the new hospital closed five years later.