Before things like regularly attending therapy and treating mental illness with appropriate medication were accessible and normalized, those who struggled with mental health were at the bottom of the totem pole. The ethics surrounding mental health institutions and the treatment of their patients are still a slippery slope, but the progress that has been made on a national scale is profound. Hillsdale has tossed its own hat in the ring with this progress.
In 1849, the county supervisors of Hillsdale opened the first Poorhouse and County Farm. The Poorhouse initially was an asylum in the truest sense of the word. Beyond the word’s modern associations with the 1960s deinstitutionalization efforts and Ken Kesey characters, the purpose of an asylum is to be a safe haven.
The Poorhouse was a space for those in need, from Civil War widows to orphaned children. Although some of the patients were deemed as insane, the inhabitants of the Poorhouse were primarily abandoned members of society. Any patient who was dangerous to his peers was sent to the Kalamazoo to the Hospital for the Insane.
The Poorhouse opened with the intent to care for those who needed more assistance than their families could provide. Prior to its conception, the burden of caretaking was placed on the families of the prospective patients. The creation of the Poorhouse created both a physical space as well as a safe environment for those in need.
A few years later in 1853, Isaac VanDenBerg, a new member of the county supervisors, helped spur the search for a new location for the Poorhouse.
The county supervisors chose a stone house on what is now Wolcott Street. It acted as the Poorhouse before a fire in 1867 destroyed a large part of the property, save for the signature brick structure. The county supervisors found a new location for the inhabitants, but the institution began to unravel after that.
To pull the final thread, a 1904 exposé published in the Hillsdale Standard highlighted some of the uglier sides of the facility.
From poor heating mechanisms causing frostbite to generally unsanitary living conditions, the exposé revealed the difficulty that the Poorhouse had in providing enough resources for each patient. In 1905, a new building was erected on the former Poorhouse property called Maplelawn. Maplelawn marked the shift of treatment goals for Hillsdale County, no longer housing children or patients deemed insane. The tonal shift placed an emphasis on rehabilitation and helping patients become functioning members of society.
Maplelawn’s primary concern was geriatric patients. Instead of being a place where the elderly and unwanted were left, Maplelawn was the next step towards a modern healthcare facility. Patients submitted an application to the Welfare Department to request treatment. When the patients were considered for discharge, their records were once again reviewed in order to determine the next course of action.
This could be moving to a formal nursing home, a full return home, or living with a family member. With fewer patients, a better facility, and a lot of time and perspective, Maplelawn spurred a more mindful approach to those in need.
The Poorhouse saw its final transformation into its present form: Hillsdale County Medical Care Facility and Rehabilitation Center. In 1970, the National Guard assisted the 120 patients in their move to the new facility which is now a well-known and highly rated nursing home in Hillsdale. Sitting just behind Hillsdale Community Thrift, the facility is a symbol of Hillsdale’s rich history and progress.
The Hillsdale County Historical Society plays a crucial part in conserving this history. JoAnne Miller, an active member and Poorhouse enthusiast has written extensively about the Poorhouse. Miller runs the Society’s website, edits their newsletters, and is the primary writer for the Ghost Walk booklets which highlight the history behind prominent areas in Hillsdale.
“The Poorhouse reminds us that all of us have the right to have at least our basic needs met,” Miller said. “We must offer help with compassion and generosity that recognizes the dignity and worth of everyone.”
Bob Evans Farms used the old Poorhouse location on Wolcott Street until 1987 when the Hillsdale County Historical Society president Phil Wilson managed to gain ownership of the property and an accompanying 1.9 acres.
Through an extensive restoration process, the Poorhouse was renovated and renamed Will Carleton Poorhouse in 1989. The Society uses the location for special events such as open houses or Christmas parties.
In years past, the Society used the location to promote student interest in Hillsdale County’s history. Local schools and homeschool programs are known to tour the site throughout the year.
Along with the building, the history of the Poorhouse has been immortalized through Hillsdale alumnus Will Carleton and his famous poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse.”
Based on his visit to Hillsdale’s Poorhouse in 1872, the poem depicts a bleak story of a woman growing old and needing aid to continue living. Through the help of neighbors and her grown children, the woman slowly loses a sense of home as she moves back and forth between caretakers over the years.
The poem suggests that the poorhouse is where the woman unwillingly ends up, as she can no longer take care of herself. The poem was made into a movie with the same name in 1920.
“But still I’ve borne up pretty well, an’ wasn’t much put down, Till Charley went to the poor-master, an’ put me on the town,” the poem reads.
Although desolate in theme, “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” provides a sense of hope. It captures a glimpse of what life was like at a generally forgotten institution, one most people will never know about. In the day and age in which celebrities and Olympic athletes are outspoken about mental health, the roots of this movement are to help people in need.
Poorhouse residents’ names and life specifics might be lost in miscellaneous census records and dusty microfilm rolls, but their story is far from forgotten. Through Carleton’s poetry and organizations like the Hillsdale County Historical Society, the effort to preserve the history of Hillsdale is actively and passionately alive. It seems to be the people, yet again.