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The Fascinating History Of The 'Poor House' Near Lake Of The Ozarks

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Poor House Near Versailles, Mo.

About one mile southeast of Versailles in Morgan County, on Route W, about five miles from the Gravois Arm of Lake of the Ozarks, there stands what was once a stately and extraordinary two-story brick structure with 35 rooms. For decades, those rooms gave shelter to the county's poor, infirm, disabled, and down-and-out.

Now in disrepair, a look at the house still offers glimpses of its former impressive appearance. The roof layered with distinctive red clay tile, the soaring white columns, and an expansive second-story balcony on the front of the façade struck a figure of majesty and magnificence in a place whose residents arrived with a life largely devoid of beauty and order.

The house perches on 98 acres of wooded hillsides and green pastures where vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and a vineyard once flourished. A grand circle of maple trees was planted on the front lawn and provided an attractive shady place to relax. The home’s numerous double-sashed windows granted sweeping views of the countryside and plenty of fresh air on warm days.

Now in great disrepair, if you drive by the old Poor House, you just might miss it – especially in summer when the tangled foliage separating the house from the road is full and lush.

This once extraordinary house has an equally extraordinary history.

Morgan County purchased the property in 1913, and the house took about a year to build. Its purpose was to accommodate those who were impoverished and often abandoned by family members – many of whom were mentally and/or physically disabled. It was called ‘the poor farm’ or ‘the poorhouse’, and it replaced the county’s previous poorhouse when representatives of various Versailles church and women’s organizations discovered that the indigents housed there were mostly living in deplorable and dangerous conditions.

Only ten to fifteen indigents lived at the poor farm at any one time. Any children that arrived at the home usually lived there for only a short while before being sent to an orphanage in St. Louis or some other institution.

Nineteen freight car loads of bricks were used to build the house; they were shipped via the Missouri Pacific Railroad from a local lumber company to the Versailles depot. From there, horse-drawn wagons hauled the shipments to the property. The gravel used is believed to have been quarried from the gravel bar in Gravois Creek.

In front of the house was a concrete circle driveway and a low white wall which set the lawn apart from the road, perfectly complementing the property. Inside the house were ceilings that reached heights of up to fourteen feet, and three staircases connected each floor. The central staircase’s banister was carefully notched by a pocketknife – each groove corresponding with each step to assist the blind residents.

Built on land with a slight incline, the home’s basement had floor-to-ceiling windows and several walkouts. Also located in the basement were the kitchen and two dining rooms – one for the patients and a smaller one for the superintendent and his family. Segregation being the norm of the day, black residents ate in the kitchen.

The main floor consisted of the superintendent’s office, small private bedrooms, several baths, and day quarters for the inhabitants. The walls were painted dark green and were complete with chair rails. One room on this floor had a somber purpose. Called "the storage room," it is where deceased residents were kept until the undertaker arrived. Two long recesses extending under the front porch opened out to the driveway, allowing the undertaker to carry the dead out of the house without causing a stir among the living.

The second floor was flanked by two large dormitories – one for the women and one for the men, each having an adjoining bath. Also on the second floor was the superintendent’s living quarters consisting of a large room for general occupancy and two bedrooms on either side of the front balcony.

While the building had several chimney flues, it was mainly heated by steam radiators, which were later scrapped during World War II. A tank in the basement pumped water throughout the house and drinking water was often carried up from the water trough in the pasture. Electricity was fairly new and underdeveloped at the time but was nevertheless installed in the house, resulting in exposed garlands of pipe and electric wiring affixed to the ceilings.

In addition to the vegetable gardens and fruit trees, the property had chickens, butchering hogs, dairy cows, a barn, and a couple of garages. At one time, there was also a smokehouse and a large watermelon patch. The goal was that the farm would produce enough surplus crops to generate income for the home, but it rarely produced enough even to sustain those living in the house.

Morgan County residents widely considered the new construction a spectacular sight to behold. People would often take Sunday drives to view the home and Sunday school children frequently held picnics on the grounds. There were even tours given of the building.

Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Morris were the superintendents when the poor farm opened in 1914 and received wages of $60 a month. They performed the day-to-day tasks of caring for the property and its residents, who were expected to help prepare and serve meals, and to clean up afterwards. Those who were physically able worked in the fields and gardens and tended to the livestock. They also did regular household chores such as laundry and cleaning. Clothing, medical expenses, and food were paid for by Morgan County taxes. 

Caring For America's Poor

Gary Kremer, author, Professor, and Executive Director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, writes in an article published in the Jefferson City New Tribune about 20 years ago that “As early as 1815, even before Missouri became a state, the territorial legislature laid the groundwork for poor relief when it decreed that each county ‘shall relieve, support and maintain its own poor, such as the lame, blind, sick and other persons, who from age and infirmity are unable to support himself or herself…’ Poor relief recipients had to be without resources to support themselves and county residents for at least nine months.” In effect, the responsibility of poor relief “remained with each county, whose court was given wide latitude in determining who was deserving of relief and what form the relief should take,” Kremer writes. 

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt aimed to restore prosperity to Americans. After taking office in 1933, he promptly sought to stabilize the economy, provide jobs, and preserve liberties and security for all. With the creation of his New Deal programs, the federal government largely assumed the responsibility for problems associated with poverty in America; programs like Social Security, minimum wage, pensions, and unemployment insurance were developed.

The Poor House & The Great Depression

Not surprisingly, the home’s attempts at self-sufficiency and taking care of its occupants became even more burdensome during the Great Depression. Morgan county’s ability to respond to the needs of the poorhouse’s residents was so overwhelmed that “when the federal government passed Old Age Assistance legislation, the county court tried to persuade elderly paupers to leave the home so that they could collect their old age pensions and cease to be a burden to the county,” Kremer writes.

On January 19, 1937, the Morgan County court passed the following order: “That all old persons resident at the County Poor Farm and Home over the age of seventy years, are hereby released from custody and control of the Superintendent of the County Poor Farm, and are allowed to remain there temporarily on condition they make immediate application for the old age pension as allowed by law.” 

The Aftermath

After all of the residents had died or left the poor farm, the county rented it out for many years. Sadly, the house was becoming rundown and in need of repair. In about 1963, it was sold to Miss Tomy Mara who continued to rent out rooms. During her ownership, a fire started on a windowsill off of the balcony and quickly swept through the attic, and the home’s grandeur continued its decline.

In 1968, Bud and Gladys Green from Grinnell, Iowa, saw the property and its history seemed to call to them. Despite the shattered windows, broken fruit jars that poked out from under the freshly fallen snow, and frozen potato seedlings trying to grow in an upstairs room, they purchased the home in hopes of making it their private residence. Sometime later, they began a Christmas tree farm and a blueberry farm on the property, neither of which are still in operation.

Some rumors and stories circulate about the house today. Maybe ghosts inhabit the skeletal remains – what a story they would tell! The Greens’ daughter, Cindy, once wrote about the property, “The life in this old building does not stop. For many it was the only place of which to go, their only shelter and the only way of life. For the living, it is a memory of what’s past. For the deceased, it is a haunting haven of anxiety.”

Today, the glass in the double-sashed windows that once granted sweeping views of the countryside remain shattered or non-existent. The grand circle of maple trees that once graced the home’s front lawn are dried and dead. And the distinctive red tile roof is fading and has large gaping holes.

The house remains in private hands, and its owners ward off trespassers or curious passersby who draw near for a closer look. But the old house is inhabitable no more, its fading façade and enduring history stand as reminders of how this Missouri county took care of its poor.

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