Berrien County Poor House

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Berrien County Poor House
Established 1847
Current Status Active
Building Style Single Building
Location St. Joseph, MI
Alternate Names
  • Berrien County Infirmary
  • Berrien County Hospital and Infirmary
  • Lakeland Medical Center (Current)


The first official action of supervisors to support a County Poor-House and Farm is recorded and dated Oct 27, 1837. There must have been some sort of temporary arrangements made for the poor until the next major resolution was passed.

In 1847 the County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to purchase land in Berrien Township for the establishment of a poor farm. They purchased this property from Richard McOmber who had settled in this area in about 1835. It was located in the Northeast , section 17 and at that time had only 160 acres with buildings and land. After sale of the property he moved to Buchanan, in the same county. Additional acreage about 32 acres, was added later. The original house built in 1847 was about 18 X 26 feet. John Tate had the contract for taking care of the home and inmates from May 28, 1847 to Apr 1, 1848 for $295.00. In 1851 a new system for caring for the poor and financially helpless of Berrien County to house them came into being. Mr. H. W. Hawley took charge of the farm.

The Poor Farm was totally destroyed by fire on December 8, 1868 (Ref: St. Joseph Herald Dec 12, 1868.) It was thought that the fire might have caught from the kitchen chimney. The keeper and inmates attempted in vain to save the building but it burnt to the ground. When saving the building proved futile the inmates heroically concentrated on saving as much as they could of the furnishings, bedding etc.. There were approximately 32 pauper residents living there at that time. In the interim for being rebuilt they were given lodging in the village of Berrien where a building was rented for temporary housing. The County Home was rebuilt in 1869-1870. St. Joseph Herald (Saint Joseph, Michigan) states in the January 22, 1870 edition that the poor-farm buildings are completed. The newer home was that of brick and ran well over budget.

It should be noted that S. C. Wheeler was the Superintendent of the Poor Farm in the late 1870's and was replaced by Capt. Bradley in about 1879. There are quite a few news articles about salaries and the replacement of Mr. Wheeler much to the chagrin of many of those who respected him. In referencing the history books, for the year ending Sept. 30, 1879, there were fifty-nine males and thirty-eight females for a total of ninety-seven and an average of fifty-six that found refuge at the home at point or another during that year. On April 1, 1880 the smoke house at the Poor Farm burned. No other buildings were affected and contents were partially saved but in damaged condition.

What happened to the Orphans of the county? In 1891 Dr. Amos Barlow was made Superintendent of the Michigan Children's Home Society and the society was Incorporated and called the Michigan Children's Home Society in 1893. Dr. Barlow was considered one of the founders of the home in the St. Joseph area and remained until January 12, 1908. Mrs. Cora Lamping replaced him. Within a few years the home found families to adopt or foster several hundred Orphans.

Through the years the farm became a colony within itself with orchards, vegetable gardens, corn and grain fields, barns, cows, chickens and pigs. Everyone who was physically capable did chores that they could manage. One couple that managed the farm in 1924 and several years after, were Mr. & Mrs. Edward Israel, who became very well known in the area. Before that Mr. and Mrs. Daniel N. Haviland were the executives. Also in the 1920's it should be noted that Charles Miller was the Superintendent for over 16 years.

In 1926 it was realized that the old structure was in desperate need of renovation and repair as some of it had become a "tinder box". Things had been stretched as far as they could be stretched and even an old out building was turned into living quarters. Conditions were unacceptable with over crowding of the inmates at these county funded buildings. When toured by county officials it was noted that there were two rooms set up as a hospital ward and another two fitted with heavy screening on the windows and set up for the mentally insane to keep them from harming themselves. It was voted on and in June of 1928 there was a new $50,000 addition was added to the existing home. The new structure was made of brick and was a fine two story building with two Men's dormitories, a lounging room, general dining room and kitchen.

1936 brought more change and a new structure was built and completed in 1937. In addition to housing the unfortunate it also was operated as a hospital for local residents and renamed, Berrien County Hospital and Infirmary located near Berrien Center. It would later evolve into the Berrien General Hospital Center and from there Lakeland Medical Center. The 200 acres continued to be used by different county facilities.