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The house that inspired a poem that moved a nation to tears.


So begins the 1872 Will Carleton poem that tugged at the heartstrings of many who had put their elderly relatives into poorhouses rather than care for them at home. The poorhouse that inspired this sad tale sits in the gently rolling countryside of Hillsdale County near the southern border of Michigan. Restored to its original appearance, it gives a glimpse into the lives of both its first owner, Isaac Vandenbergh, and the paupers that resided there after Vandenbergh sold his property to the county for poorhouse use.

Hillsdale County was established by the territorial legislature in 1835. By the end of 1849, the county board of supervisors had perceived a need for a place to shelter the homeless. They established the first County Farm and Poorhouse at the corner of Spring and Bacon Streets and paid Lorenzo Doun $20 per month to take charge as the "poorkeeper." Within a few months, the federal census counted 12 paupers living at the house, ranging in age from 10 to 80. There was no "free lunch" in this arrangement; the residents were expected--with the poorkeeper's supervision--to maintain the building and make the farm self-sustaining.

In February 1852, the Committee on the Poor Farm urged that a new poorhouse be erected on the surrounding land because the existing building was "totally unfit in every manner for the purpose used." Seven months later, the committee reversed its stance, calling the property "in good order, clean and wholesome" and describing the paupers--now being cared for by a man named Henry Thiell--as "all well, and clean."

In March 1853, a man named Isaac Vandenbergh joined the board of supervisors. Concurrently, the Committee on the Poor Farm returned to its position of the previous year and urged that a new facility be built for the disadvantaged. Vandenbergh was then appointed to a building committee to present plans and specifications for such a structure.

This committee decided that what was needed was a two-story building of stone and mortar with a cellar. They declared their intent to pay at least $1,000 and a further $1,000 if necessary. In a striking coincidence, Supervisor Vandenbergh had just built a cobblestone house that matched the committee's description. He also indicated a willingness to exchange the farm on which he lived for $2,000 plus the land on which the current county farm and poorhouse stood. The board agreed to his terms.


Isaac Vandenbergh and his wife Sarah settled in Hillsdale in the summer of 1846. He was a tavern keeper and real estate speculator as well as a farmer, prospering in the fledgling town. In 1851, he purchased 113 acres of land and hired George Wheaton to build him a cobblestone house. Wheaton had a good reputation as a mason, having worked on Hillsdale College buildings as well as the second Hillsdale County Courthouse. The Vandenberghs lived in their new home less than a year before its sale to the county.

A classic Greek Revival story-and-a-half, the Vandenberghs' house contained about 2,500 square feet. Built with a center entrance and parlors opening on both sides, it is thought that the poorkeeper occupied half of that level after it became a poorhouse. Upstairs, the men and boys likely occupied the smaller bedroom; the supervisors' minutes note that there were always fewer male residents than female. The larger upstairs bedroom, measuring about 20 by 14 feet, probably housed the women and girls.

County residents described in the parlance of the day as "idiots" and the "insane" were welcome to reside there, too.

While acknowledging that the poorhouse was overcrowded, the supervisors became outraged when their standards of decency weren't met. In January 1855, it was unanimously resolved "that the Superintendents of the Poor be instructed to cause such alteration to be made in the arrangement of matters at the poorhouse that idiots and insane persons may be kept separate from the other paupers. And that the rooms in which the paupers of all descriptions are kept cleansed and hereafter be kept free from dirt. And that the children[,] idiots and insane persons be properly taken care of, and provided with all necessaries for their health and comfort. And that they be requested forthwith to remove the present Keeper and employ some other person who may carry out the foregoing improvements."



The record then shows that a new keeper was hired and an extra room was put on the building to shelter those with mental disabilities. That was a welcome addition when the number of people at the poorhouse swelled to 35 after the Civil War left widows unable to care for their farms on their own.

On January 29, 1867, a fire erupted near the chimney at the south end of the building. Though no one was hurt, the damage to the structure was considerable, forcing the county to find temporary homes for the residents around town while a new poorhouse was built at a different location.

The building the paupers left behind contributed an enduring legacy: It was the inspiration for a 21-verse poem by Will Carleton titled "Over the Hill to the Poor-House."

A Hillsdale College student in the late 1860s, Carleton stopped in at the poorhouse one winter day when he and his friends were on a walk. The plight of the paupers deeply affected the young man, and he returned many times to hear their stories. In 1872, while working as a newspaper journalist, he finally put pen to paper to write a poem about what he observed.

"Over the Hill to the Poor-House" was originally published in the Toledo Blade. Then Harper's Bazaar picked it up, and a national audience was exposed to the moving story of an old woman who finds that none of her children, whom she cared for through good times and bad, has a place for her now that she needs them. Carleton's style may seem simplistic to modern readers. Described in a column by Detroit Free Press writer Robert Peterson on March 18, 1964 as full of "corny phrasing," it nevertheless struck a responsive chord in its time. Carleton wrote in 1904 that after the publication of the poem he received many letters from superintendents of poorhouses who claimed that there was a "decrease in the number of inmates, occasioned by the withdrawal of old people, whose children were ashamed of their neglect."

The national publication of the poem established Carleton's reputation and popularity as a poet. He toured the country giving lectures and poetry readings to large audiences. During his career, he wrote 12 volumes of poetry, was named Michigan's poet laureate, and was honored by the Michigan Legislature which directed that his birthday be celebrated in the state's schools.

The popularity of "Over the Hill" was so lasting that it inspired the development of songs of the same name and movies well into the 20th century. (Even director D.W. Griffith attempted a script based on the poem.) It's also thought that the sympathy Carleton engendered for the plight of the less fortunate was echoed during the Great Depression with the establishment of social programs that provided a safety net for those in need. An unconfirmed story claims that one of the congressmen of the time carried in his wallet a copy of "Over the Hill," and that this influenced his vote on Social Security.




After an 1867 fire, the poorhouse reverted to private ownership until the 1960s, when a Bob Evans Farms' processing plant located next door bought the building to use as storage. For 14 years, its unique exterior was neglected, as vegetation gradually hid it from view. Then, in 1987, the Hillsdale County Historical Society prevailed on Bob Evans Farms to deed them the house and outbuildings with the goal of restoring the structures as a historic home museum.

The society contracted with Quinn Evans Architects to help guide them in a historically accurate renovation of the poorhouse. Vines had dug into the walls, the roof had holes, some rafters had rotted, windows were broken, and animals had made the structure their own. In addition, some of the distinctive cobblestones had also fallen off and the corner quoins were crumbling. Inside, the damage was equally daunting; the deteriorating plaster was covered with mold, the woodwork was in need of refinishing, and the stair railing was gone.

Over the course of two years, professionals and volunteers worked almost nonstop to bring the building back from the brink. Occasionally, events occurred that pumped energy into the endless task. During an attic cleaning session, for example, one of the front door's sidelights was found; from this, a society member was able to fashion a matching window. In another instance, the plasterer hired to repair the damaged walls re-created a ceiling medallion using a scrap of the original molding as a model. Eventually, even the stair railing came back to the poorhouse--returned by a Bob Evans' executive who had taken it to his home.

When the restoration was complete, the society renamed the building the Will Carleton Poorhouse in honor of the poet who brought attention to the disadvantaged as a result of his visits there.


Besides its association with Will Carleton, Hillsdale County's poorhouse holds the unique distinction of being one of only about 40 pre-Civil War cobblestone structures in Michigan.

These buildings owe their existence to a continent-size ice cap that crept southward no million years ago during the Pleistocene epoch The violent pressure of the glacier scoured and crushed the bedrock as it moved. The stones left behind became the building blocks for this form of folk architecture. In the most refined buildings, the cobblestones were selected for size and color, laid in careful horizontal rows, and held together by a soft lime mortar made of locally dug sand, powdered lime, and water.

Often it would take years to collect the number of cobblestones necessary to cover a house. The rejected stones became the real strength of the building, however, making up the rubble walls that provided support on the inside of the structure. The masters of this craft were Erie Canal masons who turned their skill toward creating these unique buildings after the huge engineering project was done.


Cobblestone structures stretched north from their epicenter in New York state into Ontario and as far west as Wisconsin. The craft flourished between 1825 and the end of the Civil War, then died out because of high labor costs and improved wood construction methods.

JoAnne Miller is a retired middle school teacher of language arts and mathematics with an avocational interest in history. She also serves as a board member for the Hillsdale County Historical Society.
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Title Annotation:Hilldale County's poorhouse
Author:Miller, JoAnne
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2010
Previous Article:David Lano: entertainer extraordinaire.
Next Article:Over the Hill to the Poor-House (1872).

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