During the late 19th and early 20th century, Missouri law required counties to provide care for their poorest residents. In theory, someone who had family able to care for him or her was not placed at the county home.
Many of those cared for by their counties were developmentally disabled or physically handicapped; others were elderly and frail. Widows with children sometimes were placed at the county home, especially if they had no other family. Children sometimes were allowed to stay with their parents; in other cases children were taken from their parents and sent to orphanages.
Most counties maintained a “county home” or “poor farm,” as they were sometimes called. The county homes were generally located in rural areas on a sizable acreage with livestock, dairy operations, crops and gardens. The homes were expected to at least partially support themselves with the products of the farm as well as provide food and shelter for the indigent. Residents who were physically able were expected to work on the farm. Their labor lowered the costs of maintaining the farm, and gave the residents a measure of dignity.
The original Pettis County Home was located 11 miles south of Sedalia on one of the worst plots of land in the county. Its land was so poor that it was unable to produce adequate supplies for the farm. The management of the farm was given to the person who promised to care for the residents for the lowest cost. In 1894, that cost was $1.30 per resident per week.
As a result of these factors, the Pettis County Grand Jury regularly criticized the management of the County Home. In 1894, the Pettis County Commission purchased a new property that, according to the Sedalia Democrat, promised to be “a credit to the county.” The new property, the former Elisha Brown farm located three and a half miles north of Sedalia, was to be managed by a “competent” superintendent who could make the farm self-supporting and provide adequate care for the residents.
Residents’ responses to being placed at the county home were mixed. Some were grateful for the care they received. Others resented the quality of care they were given or the tasks they were required to perform. Still others missed their families.
In January 1910, the Pettis County Home was the victim of a series of three arson fires during one week. In each fire, a pile of oil soaked kindling was lit. The fires were discovered and extinguished by employees of the home. Mrs. H.C. Hatton, a superintendent of the home, notified county authorities after the first fire.
County authorities began an investigation. Sheriff M.T. Henderson sent Deputy James C. Card and Deputy Constable Ed Kahrs to talk to residents and try to find clues to the identity of the arsonist. Yet another arson attempt occurred while the two men were at the home. Card noticed that the smoke house, one of the smaller buildings, was burning. He extinguished the fire and discovered a pile of oil soaked kindling used to start the fire.
The investigation resulted in an arrest. Within a few days, however, three people were at the Pettis County jail, charged with arson. Next week’s column details the arrests.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.