“Over the Hill to the poorhouse my child’ ern goodbye!
Many a’ night I watched you when only God was neigh;
And God‘ll judge between us, but I will al’ays pray;
You shall never suffer as I do today.”
From “Over The Hill to the Poorhouse,” by Will Carleton, 1872
It was June, 1967, and as Mae Weida recalled it in her article in the 1990 issue of the Lehigh County Historical Society’s Proceedings, the staff at Cedarbrook, the county’s hospital and nursing home, were looking for space for the Operational Therapy Department. Opening the door of a long unused closet, they were surprised to find it full of ledger books. Looking at them more closely they were also surprised to discover record books from the mid-19th century, a time when Cedarbrook was known as the Lehigh County Poorhouse and County Farm. The oldest they could find dated from the mid 1840’s, when it had first opened. It was a time capsule look at how Lehigh County, and many other counties, towns and cities tried or attempted to try to cope with the social changes brought on by industrial revolution and population growth, which led to poverty and social dislocation. It also reflected how the stigma of poverty clung to the poorhouse concept, a place where no one wanted to be sent and no one wanted to be forced to stay.
Traditionally in Europe it had been the role of the church to look after the poor. But with few prominent exceptions, following the Protestant Reformation a lot of these religious institutions were replaced by local governments. It was in 1601 that England’s Queen Elizabeth I created the first so-called Poor Laws. In place and essentially the same for the next 250 years, they required the local government to establish an official to see to it that the poor would get some sort of relief and that the town could raise taxes to build poorhouses for them. Charity was only part of their purpose. Primarily it was a means of social control, to keep the “paupers and vagabonds” from roaming the countryside and becoming bandits or rebellious. There were strict penalties imposed on those who refused to obey the poor law officials.
It was only 21 years later, 1622, that the first English style poorhouse was founded in America at Jamestown, Virginia. Under the mistaken impression that the New World was full of gold, those who first came there were disappointed to discover it was not true. Jails and poorhouses were established primarily for them. The next known American poorhouse was founded in 1660 in Boston as the Boston Almshouse. In 1735 it was expanded under the Boston Workhouse Act of 1735. Some who had places to live were provided with food in their homes. Others were “bound out” by boarding them to work with local farmers. There were even auctions where the poor were auctioned off to the highest bidders. Philadelphia had both an almshouse and asylum where, on Sunday afternoons, it was common practice to stare at the “antics” of the “lunatics.”
But it was not until the 1830s that there was active talk of a poorhouse for Lehigh County. A petition was presented to the State Legislature for a Lehigh County poorhouse in 1831 but the measure failed. It may have been because conservative Pennsylvania-Germans did not like the idea of turning over to the county government a function that for centuries had belonged to the church. They also may not have liked the fact that their taxes would have to be raised to pay for this institution. But in the 1840s things took a sudden change. The collapse in the local economy in the Panic of 1837 and the depression that followed and a flood in 1841 devastated the local economy and led to many of the poor and needy wandering the streets. Something had to be done to give them relief, get them working and keep them off the street. The measure to create “a House of Employment And Support of the Poor of Lehigh County” passed in a referendum by 1,200 votes. The county established a commission to begin the process of acquiring land for the new facility. On November 18th 1844, the commissioners gathered at Henry Guth’s log tavern at Guthsville to go through the pile of 28 possible properties.
Among the most prominent were the following:
Peter Mussellman had 130 acres in Upper Macungie Township he offered to sell. Owen Kern, Edward Kern and Joseph Wittman had 300 acres they owned jointly in North Whitehall Township that would be just right. Even innkeeper Guth got into the action. He had a little property in South Whitehall Township that he was willing to part with for the small sum of $90 an acre. But the commissioners were quickly drawn to the farms of Solomon, David and Charles Mertz for the South Whitehall property that they owned jointly. Solomon and David wanted $10,000 with a gristmill mill thrown in and $90 an acre for the 94 acres they owned. Charles was selling his 146 acres for $100 an acre. The Mertz boys were well-known in the county. They were the sons of the late General Henry Mertz who commanded militia troops in the War of 1812. The war was over before the General could hear a shot fired in anger. But as one local historian noted many years later, he had, “a commanding bearing and a stately influence.” Their reasons for selling the land were mixed. Solomon had just married Sally Ann Butz and was about to head west to Illinois to start farming there. David had become a minister and Charles had apparently needed some cash to cover a few debts he had as a result of the economic hard times of the 1840s.
On December 4, 1844 the commissioners, meeting at the Lehigh County Courthouse, voted in favor of the Mertz brothers. Solomon took his $8,400 share and headed west with his bride. It is not known what David’s share was. Charles purchased a farm for the $14,800 he received and did so well that in 1858 he purchased building lots and planned our what became the village of Cetronia.
To judge from an illustration on an 1862 map of the county, the Poorhouse was an impressive, two- story structure. The official documents called it a “commodious house.” The artist showed it in a pleasant country-like setting complete with a carriage and high stepping horse in the foreground. In 1857 an enterprising farmer named Solomon Dorney, later founder of Dorney Park, had given the county 254 acres for a farm. This fit in with the plan. For the poorhouse was never designed to be a quiet, restful setting where the indigent elderly could live out their declining years. Those who lived there were to work on the farm or at other tasks. The Lehigh County Poorhouse, like those across the country, was to be “self-supporting.”
The rules put in place were strict. “Spirituous liquors” were forbidden. A Steward and Matron were in charge. Their jobs included buying food and purchasing tools and to keep a list of the inmates. Children were “bound out” to work an apprenticeship for a local shopkeeper or other employer. The women were given spinning wheels and cloth to make the clothes worn by the inmates. The doors and gates around the grounds were locked and even family members were not permitted without permission. Records of the number of inmates and types were kept. Those for the new year of January 1, 1849 were typical: 50 males, 40 females, 22 males under 12, total inmates at close of the year 133. Of these, nine were insane, which could be defined as anything from senility to violent behavior.
Those suffering from mental illness were placed in the same institution with hardened criminals, orphans and the elderly widows. Eventually by 1867 criminals were sent to the then new Lehigh County Prison, designed to look like a Tudor castle. In that period of the 19th century there was no other local facility for any of these groups. Their lives were regulated by bells to get up in the morning and to go to bed at night. The written rules for the duties of the Steward and Matron do not on their face seem particularly harsh. But the almost absolute power that they gave over the inmates was frequently abused. It was not at usual in poorhouses across the country to be the subject of scandals where officials could cut deals with local grocers and get “kick-backs,” and sexual abuse on the inmates by the overseers was not unheard of.
For many people it was the stigma of poverty that clung to anyone who had to be admitted that was the worst for many. The popular culture of the times in poems and plays depicts the poorhouse as a place whose inmates were treated as scarcely human. To be admitted to a poorhouse was to say your family did not care for you. Poverty was regarded in Victorian America as God’s judgement on you, even if it was not stated openly. Residents of the poorhouse were objects of ether pity or scorn. Today the poorhouse has joined high button shoes and whale bone corsets in the national attic, a relic of a social institution that had long outlived whatever good they might have done.