A Home for the Homeless
Remembering the Pleasants County Poor Farm

By Richard Brammer

Published in GOLDENSEAL, Fall, 1994.


Presented by Linda Cunningham Fluharty


LOCATION

Henry Hammett points out the location of the old poor house.
The big trees at the roadside park mark where the house stood.
(Photo by Michael Keller.)

Robert T. Parker was connected to the Parker family who founded Parkersburg, but he preferred to live in the upper end of old Wood County, 20 miles above the city and one mile below the mouth of French Creek. Parker was attracted to the area by cheap land, cheap timber, and cheap labor.

He settled on the banks of the Ohio River in what is now southern Pleasants County. The farm ran from river to hill, about half level ground and half hillside. Sometime in the 1840's, Robert Parker erected a mansion near a corner of riverbank, directly overlooking First Brother Island and a straight stretch of Ohio. Second Brother Island could be seen in the distance downstream. The Parker famhouse sat on a foundation of cut stones, supported by heavy beams. All together there were 14 rooms, all with high ceilings.

Poor farm caretakers represented the institutional charity of the county. The family of Cemillion and Minnie Hammett, shown at left in 1938, were the last caretakers. Benjamin and Lydia Brammer (right), our author's grandparents, served earlier.

An act establishing Pleasants County was passed by the Virginia Assembly in the session of 1850-51. Robert Parker's end of Wood County was included in the new county. On May 16, 1851, the new county court marked out four districts for overseers of the poor and school commissioners. Parker was appointed the overseer of the poor and school commissioner of the fourth district, running roughly from the lower half of St. Marys down to Cow Creek.

It was the duty of the overseer to see that the poor were supplied with necessary food and clothing and that they received proper medical attention. Able-bodied paupers were hired out to responsible citizens for their board and keep, in exchange for the work they were able to do. School-age children were required to attend school.

So up until 1885 Pleasants County got along without a poor farm or similar institution. Care of the poor was left to the overseers, but that proved to be a haphazard way of doing things. Reports of maltreatment were occasionally confirmed, eventually condemning the entire system.

Finally the county commissioners bought Parker's house for an infirmary for the poor. Soon after this happened, several houses sprang up in the neighborhood, and the hamlet came to be called Parkerville, a way station on the Ohio River Railroad. According to Blair Core, local historian, Major Robert H. Browse bought a tract of local land in 1887, laid it out into city lots, and changed the name to Belmont.

That was just before my family entered the scene. In her book, Life in the Hills of West Virginia, my aunt Olive Boley depicts life in the early 1900's when Benjamin and Lydia Locke Brammer reared their family on a small farm near Nine Mile, Pleasants County. Ben Brammer, my grandfather, was an orphan whose mother died when he was two years old. His uncle and aunt, Jacob and Clara Brammer, provided a home for him and cared for him until he turned 14. Ben then worked for neighbors for his board and keep until he finally managed to get a home of his own, marrying Lydia Locke when she was 17 and he was 19.

Eventually Ben and Lydia had nine children. After Ben sold the farm, the family moved to Belmont where the Brammers became caretakers of the county farm. There were four children now. Olive looked after Earl, who was her younger brother and my father.

Recently I had the opportunity to ask Olive about her recollections of those days when her family ran the Pleasants County poor farm.


Olice Brammer Boley

Richard Brammer: It's not every day that you have strangers to come into your home and live around you. Do you have any stories?

Olive Boley: The main house was a large, two-story, frame house. Then there was a two-room cottage that stood out in the yard. Finally, there was a washhouse that could be converted into a bedroom if necessary.

The inmates lived on the first story and the caretaker and his family lived on the second. There were four rooms in the inmates' quarters and six rooms in the family's living quarters. Each of the bedrooms contained two beds. There was a very large kitchen that ran clear across the back of the house. Mom had to make meals for everybody.

It was a home for the homeless. People who had no means, no family. They were wards of the county. The county had to provide.

RB: You called them inmates?

OB: That's what they were called. Dad met with the county commissioners once a month, more often if necessary. He'd have to take physical custody, so in that sense they were inmates. But we could go around them, and we were supposed to treat them like family.

RB: What kind of deal did Grandpa have?

OB: All of our expenses were paid. He received an annual salary of $700. In the three years that we stayed there, we saved $2000 and spent $100. Mom could get a few bolts of cloth and sew our clothes for us. We just needed money to buy the few things that we really needed, like coffee, sugar, chewing tobacco. Anything else was considered frills.

Alex Reed and Anthony Boley lived out in the cottage. They both walked with a cane, and every now and then they'd get into a squabble and use their canes on each other.

Old Man Westfall would get a newspaper each morning, and a lot of times I'd go down to visit him because he'd read the funnies to me. Westfall had a roommate by the name of Jim Crow. Jim Crow was one of those dressed-up dudes. He just knocked around the countryside, living wherever he could.

Westfall was sitting in his chair in one corner of the room [one time], reading. In the other corner of the room, there was Jim Crow's bed, with his clothes hanging on the wall right beside it. Right away I noticed something on Jim Crow's good suit jacket. "What's on that coat?" I said. "Lint," he said. "It's a-running," I said.

The old man, he got up to take a closer look. Then he shouted, "Lice! Me God, lice! Come on. We got to tell [Mrs. Brammer.]" So off we went.

Mr. Westfall was there when we came there, and he was still there when we left. And then Alex Reed and Anthony Boley came. These three were there the greatest part of the time. At the most we had six people.

Then we got the kids in -- Henry. He was four or five years old. I don't remember of him speaking. His parents were hoboes. They slept around in barns, stole what they ate. The court had taken custody of him and he was placed with us for about ten days until arrangements could be worked out to get him into the children's home in Huntington.

And, I will never forget, [once] after Dad went to meet the county commissioners for his usual meeting, he returned with this kid who acted like a wild animal turned loose. Anything he could get hold of, he'd grab.

He was wild. So we took him in the living room, moved everything out of his reach, put a staple in the back wall there, and tied him to a clothesline. He was given just so much space to operate in.

It was Mom and I that would take care of him. I'd feel sorry for him, so I'd scoot a rocker over to him and get him up in my lap and rock him. That pleased him. At night they put a cot in Mom and Dad's bedroom for him, on Mom's side of the bed. Dad and Sylvia, neither one could stand him. Mom gave him a bath and discovered head lice on him. She figured I was poluted with them, too, because I had spent so much time with mim. But Dad had 'em, Sylvia had 'em, and Mom and I didn't.

Others followed my grandfather's family as caretakers at Belmont. Demillion W. (Mel) and Minnie Stackpole Hammett, the parents of eight children, three boys and five girls, were the last. Mel was a corn farmer and a teamster for many years, having farmed Broadhead Island, then owned by the Greenwood family of Newport, Ohio. Broadhead Island lies well out in the Ohio River, across from Belmont.

A dam once extended from the head of the island to the main shore, just below French Creek. In the afternoon of September 25, 1916, an expectant Mrs. Hammett and her attending physician walked across the dam from Belmont to Broadhead Island where, in the evening of the same day, Mrs. Hammett was delivered of her third son and seventh child. She and her husband later named him Henry. The Hammetts eventually left their island residence, crossing the frozen Ohio one winter in a wagon pulled by a team of horses. They first occupied a house on the river bottom, which had survived a great flood. They continued there until 1937, when Mr. Hammett got the job of caretaker of the county farm.

Henry and brother Homer helped with the farm work. Mrs. Hammett, along with her daughters Helen and Christine, was in charge of caring for the inmates, who were housed at that time in the main house and cottages nearby.

This rare surviving photo of poor farm days shows a tenant by one of the cottages. The passing boy is a relative of the caretaker. (Photographer and date unknown.)

Helen Hammett Roby and Henry Hammett were 16 and 21 when their family moved to the county farm. On March 24, 1994, I met them at Helen's home to talk about their recollections.

Richard Brammer: Your father was a caretaker of the county farm, right?

Henry Hammett: Yes. He was the last one. He died while we were still living at the county farm.

RB: How many people lived with you?

Helen Roby: It would vary. Those cottages outside had four rooms, and they were usually always full. And then a couple of rooms in the main house were used. We had at least eight or ten people, I'd say.

RB: And these were poor, mostly elderly, mentally or physically impaired individuals, is that correct?

HH: Yes. Couldn't take care of themselves, or their families wouldn't take care of them, one or the other. Paupers is what we called them. We had one family. There was a mother and father and their son. They were pretty much retarded. That was the only intact family we had.

RB: Did the inmates have chores?

HH: Some of them could help a little. They would have a few little chores, like feed the chickens, slop the hogs. A few able-bodied men would work out in the field, harvesting hay, for example. But generally there wasn't much they could do.

RB: Did you have anyone to run away?

HH: Once or twice. They didn't go far, nor would they stay gone for long. Sometimes their own families would decide to take them back. They would come and rescue them.

Lots of people didn't want to have to be there because it was considered a disgrace to have to go to the county farm. The felt pressure at first, but they really needed to have a place to stay. It wasn't as bad as they first believed, and in time they just got used to it.

HR: Did you tell him about Evie and Johnnie getting lost?

HH: They were both inmates, and they'd always gather walnuts in the fall. The man, we called him Johnie Schoonover, he was 90 percent blind, and the woman, she had limited intelligence. They were on the hillside farm and got lost one night, didn't come in. So we had the fire dapartment out there hunting for them. We hunted for them all night. Next morning, somebody found them in an old abandoned house that they had taken refuge in. It was a pretty cold fall evening, too. They had on the gunnysacks that they had kept their walnuts in, and that's how they kept warm.

RB: Was there a religious aspect to inmate care?

HH: No. Several people would attend local churches, but they didn't have to.

HH: They were always well-received.

RB: What all would a caretaker have to do? What were his duties and responsibilities?

HH: He kept track of the daily living expenses and presented a financial statement to the Department of Public Assistance each month. He made sure that the basic needs of the inmates were being met. And sometimes he'd receive physical custody of a person or persons through an emergency court order.

Otherwise, he ran the farm. There was hay to cut, corn to raise, potatoes to dig. That's about all he did. The wife generally took care of the inmates, doing the cooking, the cleaning, and the laundry.

HR: I bet I made ten million buckwheat pancakes.

HR: My, they loved pancakes!

HB: Doing laundry must have been something.

HR: Never-ending.

HH: I can remember when we got our first washing machine, the old fashoned Maytag. It made a sound: Putt-putt, putt-putt.

RB: Gasoline engine?

HH: Yes. We thought that was a luxury then. And it was!

HR: Sure it was, compared to the scrub board.

HH: The next-to-last caretaker was a regular scallywag, and a preacher to boot! He stole the county blind. Dozens of his friends came in there and lived off the county. Of course, he'd have unlimited store privileges.

RB: Where would the main house have been?

HH: In the Belmont Recreation Area, about where the old roadside park is. It faced the river. Northwest, I believe. Two trees still standing formed the southern bounds of the old house. A pear tree marked the southwest corner of the house and a weeping willow tree the southeast corner.

RB: What became of the house?

HH: It was vacated in 1962 and then razed in 1963 to make way for the roadside park. [The park] used to be popular, but not anymore. People seem to prefer the newer, bigger picnic facilities on the other side of the access road.

Have you heard of a potter's field?

RB: Yes, I'm familiar with the idea.

The potter's field, a pauper's graveyard, is a lonely vestige
of the Pleasants County poor farm.
(Photo by Michael Keller.)

HH: Well, they buried [the paupers] on the lower end of the county farm, right in front of what became the Belmont Elementary School and just before Triplett Street. When they built the school, they had to take out those graves and relocate them further up the hill, on the hillside. They had 25 wooden boxes that they put the remains in -- you know, skulls and bones. Various bones.

One [of the original coffins] had a glass top on it. And there was one or two, I suppose, overcoats. They were made of wool, and they hadn't decomposed. Nobody had been buried there since 1917. You could recognize the coats; it was sandy ground and they were kind of preserved. One set of remains was in a painted pine board box. That was back in 1950, when they built the school.

HR: We watched them take out those graves.

HH: Almost the whole town was there. Of course, this town was only half as big back then.

There weren't any markers when they were exhumed. There was an occasional rock. I suppose somebody in the family had put a rock there just to mark where the grave was. When they dug up the remains, they placed them in two-foot long boxes. No records were kept. They were just inmates from the county farm.

Helen married Morgan Roby in 1939. She moved out but continued to live in the neighborhood, so she was still able to help with the inmates at the county farm. Homer and Christine and Henry continued to live with their parents at the farm. The inmates stayed on, in the house and in the cottages, despite Mr. Hammett's death in 1940, Christine and Homer's moving away (by 1942), and Mrs. Hammett's death in 1950. Finally, the old house was vacated by Henry and by any inmate who might have been there in 1962, and it was demolished in 1963. The cottages remained until 1973.

When Henry moved out he took up residence in the immediate area, continuing to raise mostly corn and wheat on the county property. Helen provided care as usual. People aged and things changed. The two parents in the farm's one pauper family died, and their son went to live with relatives. One final tenant, a woman, came to stay at Belmont.

In 1973 the Pleasants County Board of Education purchased the property. Of the old inmates only Evie and Johnnie were still alive and still wards of the county. They and the new woman went to stay in the private home of Ruby and Charles Alderman, who lived just a few blocks away. That left them in familiar surroundings and in the same neighborhood with Henry and Helen. The three paupers and their former caretakers were able to see and hear from one another from time to time, but the Pleasants County poor farm was no more.


Hard copy submitted by Thelma Wells West.
Used with permission of author, Richard Brammer.