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Will Carleton’s poem, Over the Hill to the Poorhouse , was based on the Hillsdale Poorhouse. Courtsey | Hillsdale College Archives
Will Carleton’s poem, Over the Hill to the Poor­house, was based on the Hillsdale Poor­house.
Courtsey | Hillsdale College Archives

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.