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Old ‘Poor House’ is an integral part of Illinois Pioneer Village
Illinois Correspondent

HARRISBURG, Ill. — For those without funds in the mid-1800s, if there was no family to assist, they may have ended up at a Poor House or Pauper Farm. This is the centerpiece of the Pioneer Village in Harrisburg.

Located at 1600 Feazel Street, its Poor House was built in 1877 with an addition in 1904. The home was society’s answer of what to do to take care of the poor.

The Shawnee Tourism website at indicates as early as 1819, the Illinois General Assembly enacted a Pauper Bill requiring county commissioners to appoint overseers of the poor for each township. Usually, a pauper’s family received aid for the care of those who could not care for themselves.

By 1839 the Almshouse method was introduced, in which a building would be built on county land and pauper labor would farm it. One person could oversee the operation. This Poor Farm, originally containing 175 acres, was built under the Almshouse Law using log buildings for many years until the brick building was constructed.
Eventually, the Poor Farm became an orphanage, a jail, an insane asylum and a place for refugees or, as the website put it, “a social dumping ground for the outcast and deplored.”

The land left surrounding this interesting and sad history is now home to other buildings that comprise the Pioneer Village. In the past, Saline County considered tearing down the Poor House, but through time it has remained. The farm ceased operation sometime after 1950, but serves as the Saline County Museum; tours are at 2 p.m. each day except Monday. The cost is $3 for adults. For personal tours any other time, the cost is $5.

Across the street from the village is the Pauper Cemetery, with burials going back to 1849. Records indicate there were 263 burials, and at least 60 were children. The cemetery also served unknown vagrants, murder victims, people killed in the nearby coal mine and abandoned children.

The cemetery stones can be telling of the victims’ demise. The custom was for those not having a funeral to be buried the same day, which brought about the following epitaphs: “run over by train at Wasson,” “gun shot wound,” “unknown baby girl found in sewer,” “gunshot wound administered by chief of police,” “Shot by Charlie Birger at Ledford,” “Daddy,” “Lithuania-wife still in Europe,” “found dead in ditch,” “carnival worker,” “murdered” and “left leg of Charlie Yates-O’Gara #3 coal mine accident.”

A merrier visit is the village itself, which represents a pioneer settlement of 1800-40. It is a history lesson of architecture that includes a blockhouse, a saddlebag cabin, a barn with a threshing floor (one of the few remaining in the United States), a post office, a school, a Quaker church, a jail, and a regular cabin. The village was recreated by John Allen, the author of Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois.

The Aydolette Barn and threshing floor comes with a double corncrib. One side of the barn was to serve as a corncrib and the other, for livestock. Wheat was cut with a scythe and then threshed on the wooden floor located between the two cribs.

The wheat grains were separated from the chaff on the floor, then swept up and put in sacks. This may be the last threshing floor remaining in the Midwest.

The period the village covers predates Saline County, which was organized in 1847. When it was organized, Abraham Lincoln was the attorney and the county was the 99th of 102. This area served as a migration trail.

Settlement in Illinois began with the French from 1690 and reached its peak about 1750. The website states that immigration occurred mostly along the Mississippi River, in different ways. The French looked upon their efforts as merchants and missionaries, with farming supplementing the need for trade, mostly along a river, for example.

The War of 1812 and the Blackhawk War forced settlers who feared attack on isolated farmsteads to think of building blockhouses. The home on display at the village has a fortress look to it. Because of the small American Indian population, the blockhouse period was short-lived.

Most blockhouses had two stories, with either squared-off or rounded logs and reinforced doors and windows. The reason for the overhang was to discourage the attackers from climbing onto the roof, which was vulnerable. At one time blockhouses in Saline County were numerous along the Kaskaskia and the Goshen Trail.
This is an educational stop that offers insight into Illinois pioneer and agricultural history, with a French twist. The Poor House phenomenon also provides the state of awareness of social issues just a little over a century ago.