No twinkling lights or iridescent tinsel strands adorn the humble cobblestone house at 180 Wolcott Street. Instead, pine boughs, red candles, and paper ornaments — softly illuminated by lamplight— lend toa quaint Christmas cheer that harkens to days gone by. Christmas at the Poorhouse, an annual holiday open house that provides area residents entertainment, fellowship, homemade treats, and the opportunity to learn about Hillsdale County heritage.
The Hillsdale County Historical Society maintains the Will Carleton Poorhouse, and delights in showcasing it in authentic holiday splendor each December. Members donate time and money to decorate the house, prepare food and baked goods, and coordinate musical acts for the occasion.
The Historical Society has hosted Christmas at the Poorhouse since 1989, and it has become a beloved community tradition; this year’s event, held Dec. 1 and 2, was well-attended.
Mary Foulke, a member of the Historical Society Board, appreciates the unfussy festivity of the event.
“Christmas at the Poorhouse gives us the opportunity to share what things were like years ago, in simpler times,” she said. “It’s a beautiful simplicity, and it’s a time for reflection.”
During the 1850s and 1860s, the Will Carleton Poorhouse served as a residence for the elderly and those who had fallen on hard times. While a student at Hillsdale College, Will Carleton often walked to the poorhouse to visit with the tenants. An internationally renowned poet, he based his best-known poem, “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse,” on his experiences there. Today it serves as a venue for educational community events and a monument to Hillsdale’s early days.
Historical society members collaborate to deck the house in accordance to its Victorian beginnings for Christmas at the Poorhouse, this year relying on natural greens to enliven it. The two-story Poorhouse contains furniture from the 1850s through the 1900s donated by Hillsdale County residents, and visitors were welcome to explore the entire house to get a sense of what life was like in the latter part of 19th century. Volunteers sported period outfits, completing the authenticity of the experience.
Margaret Scott, who has been a member of the Historical Society for about 13 years, said Christmas at the Poorhouse is her favorite event the society puts on.
“Anyone interested in history would enjoy coming here just to learn about how things were,” she said.
This year’s musical lineup was diverse, including a country band, vocalists, a classical guitarist, a french horn player, a violin player, and local musician Bob Pogue. Many of the musical acts incorporate the house’s pump organ.
Historical Society member Judy Evans has been planning the entertainment for about 10 years, and books performers from throughout Hillsdale County.
“I try to get a variety,” Evans said. “And I make sure to schedule some time with nothing going on so people can visit.”
Jenna Ellis, 12, has been singing at Christmas at the Poorhouse since she was four years old and enjoys the chance to share her talent and passion with the community. She opened with her favorite song, “Away in a Manger.”
In addition to enjoying refreshments and fellowship in the poorhouse, attendees were welcome to visit the renovated barn, where vendors and Historical Society volunteers sold baked goods and old-fashioned Christmas decorations.
Hillsdale resident Penny Swan has been attending Christmas at the Poorhouse since it started.
“It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “Christmas at the Poorhouse is a really neat piece of history.”