The last local home for the poor, insane and helpless

The last remaining building from the county poor house, still part of the complex on McDonough Street near Infantry.
The last remaining building from the county poor house, still part of the complex on McDonough Street near Infantry.

By Sandy Vasko

Last time, we visited the Will County Poor House. It was August of 1877, and the Joliet Morning Sun reporter gave a graphic description of life there. The main problem was that the insane were housed among the rest of the residents. The result of the column was that the County Board listened and took action:

“The Board of Supervisors of Will County have appropriated $2,000 ($56,500) to build a county Insane Asylum. For some time, there has been in the hands of our county treasurer about $3,000 ($84,650) being a balance of the State tax of 1873 levied to pay the interest on our railroad bonds, which was paid back by the State to the County.

“The Sun takes great pleasure in making the announcement for the season that it was the only newspaper advocate the measure had. Having call the attention of the Board to the necessities of the case they, like sensible men, made the appropriation. No better use could be found for this money. Instead of lying idle in the Treasurer’s vaults, it will be doing an incalculable amount of good to those who cannot help themselves. The new insane Asylum will be built along side of the poor house and will be completed this fall.”

On a cold day in January, a reporter from a rival newspaper, the Joliet Record, made a visit to view the difference having an insane asylum on the property made. “Over the hills to the poor house, that was the way we went last Tuesday and slow we went and the way seemed long for the roads were terribly rough. When we arrived, we found ourselves out on the broad prairies about four miles west of our city. We were kindly received by the parties in charge, and shown through the premises quite courteously.

“The premises consist of an 80-acre farm equipped with the necessary buildings and utensils. The main house is a large wooden structure, looking like an immense farm house. It is in very fair condition, yet it seemed to us that it would not be amiss if a new one were put in its place. Ventilation is very deficient, and the general impression it makes is that of dinginess. The family in charge have rooms in it, and the rest is devoted to the poor. The men’s rooms are in one wing, the women’s in the other.

“The men’s rooms are, perhaps 8’ x 8’, and each is furnished with bed and chairs. Two men occupy a room together. The rooms were at a very comfortable temperature, and, as if to make it warmer, the men were lounging about puffing tobacco smoke till we were fairly smothered. We examined the beds – they were of straw with woolen blankets and comforts, and pillow and pillowcases, and all looked quite clean.

“The women’s room looked about the same – they are cleaner than the man’s. The kitchen which we next visited, is furnished with all the necessaries for work, though all are not of the latest make. The food which we say was certainly as wholesome as need be and in abundance.

“As there are many insane persons sent to the institution, a new building has been erected in which the paint is hardly yet dry. It is of stone and is a creditable affair. It is finished with rooms opening from a hall. The nine rooms on the lower floor are in the form of cells having iron gratings, while those of the floor above are ordinary rooms. Another new building is quite soon to be erected in the place of the present wash house, and it will be quite an improvement. The barns and the corn cribs seemed to be in good condition.

“And now for the inmates: there are at present fifty-seven of them, and booked as follows: Channahon, 3: Frankfort, 3; Wilmington, 3; Lockport, 4; Peotone, 1; Wilton, 1; Troy, 3; Monee, 2; Joliet, 28; New Lenox 3, Jackson, 1; Reed, 1; Custer, 1; Will County 2 insane.

“Of these, sixteen or seventeen are women and 2 are children; the balance are men. As to their nationality, only two are Americans. Of the causes which sent them here, we have poverty 13; cripples, 5; blind, 3; insane, 13; deaf and dumb 2; several other causes are mentioned as immaterial, as old age, St. Vitus dance, etc.

“Of course, they are a peculiar class of people, but a happy one, nevertheless. The men are worth very little to work; they amuse themselves during the summer in cultivating small patches of ground, devoted chiefly to tobacco, and in sunning themselves. The women work very well; they cook and wash, and make the clothing for the institution.

“They are all well fed – no one who sees them can doubt this. During the winter, two meals per day are served; in summer, three. For breakfast they have bread and butter, coffee, and sometimes meat and potatoes. For dinner, meat and potatoes and other vegetables; for drink, they have milk. They eat at a table; the men first, women next. They cook and eat all they wish, helping themselves. Their clothing is sufficient, hats and shoes being bought, and the rest made upon the premises.

“The township pays $1.20 ($37.50) per week for each inmate it sends, and this is so expended as to cover all expenses. Taken all in all the Will county poor house is very well managed. ‘They treat us reasonably,’ said an old man in response to a query.”

Within two years, many more improvements and expansions were made, and the new insane asylum building had 20 residents and the following numbers:

“Following is an exhibit of the number and nationality of the inmates at the Poor House: whole number from Sept. 10, 1878, to Sept. 10, 1879, 95; received during the year, 34; discharged, 23; died, 7; present number, 61. Nationalities: Irish, 34; American, 6; French, 1; German, 11; English, 4; colored, 1; Swede, 2; Scotch, 1; Canadian, 1. Sex; Males, 42; females, 19. Inventory of property on the farm, as certified to by Mr. Cropsey: One pair mares; 1 set old harness; 1 set new ditto; 1 set single harness; 1 wagon; 1 Democrat wagon; 1 pair sleds; 1 drag; 1 plow; 1 cultivator; 1 hay rake; 12 tons hay; 28 acres corn; 475 bushels oats; 3 acres potatoes; 6 cows; 1 calf; 32 hogs; 40 pigs; 125 chickens.”

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