Over The Hill To The Poor-House

Over the hill to the poor-house I'm trudgin' my weary way---
I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray---
I, who am smart an' chipper, for all the years I've told,
As many another woman that's only half as old.

Over the hill to the poor-house---I can't quite make it clear!
Over the hill to the poor-house---it seems so horrid queer!
Many a step I've taken, a-toilin' to and fro,
But this is a sort of journey I never thought to go.

What is the use of heapin' on me a pauper's shame?
Am I lazy or crazy? am I blind or lame?
True, I am not so supple, nor yet so awful stout;
But charity ain't no favor, if one can live without.

I am ready and willin' an' anxious any day
To work for a decent livin' and pay my honest way;
For I can earn my victuals, an' more too, I'll be bound,
If anybody is willin' to only have me 'round.

Once I was young an' hand'some---I was, upon my soul---
Once my cheeks was roses, my eyes was black as coal;
And I can't remember, in them days, of hearin' people say,
For any kind of a reason, that I was in their way!

'Tain't no use of boastin' or talkin' over-free,
But many a house an' home was open then to me;
Many a han'some offer I had from likely men,
And nobody ever hinted that I was a burden then.

And when to John I was married, sure he was good and smart,
But he and all the neighbors would own I done my part;
For life was all before me, an' I was young an' strong,
And I worked my best an' smartest in tryin' to get along.

And so we worked together; and life was hard, but gay,
With now and then a baby to cheer us on our way.
Till we had half a dozen, an' all growed clean an' neat,
An' went to school like others, an' had enough to eat.

An' so we worked for the child'rn, and raised 'em every one---
Worked for 'em summer and winter, just as we ought to've done;
Only perhaps we humored 'em, which some good folks condemn,
But every couple's own child'rn's a heap the dearest to them!

Strange how much we think of OUR blessed little ones!---
I'd have died for my daughters, and I'd have died for my sons.
And God He made that rule of love; but when we're old and gray
I've noticed it sometimes, somehow, fails to work the other way.

Stranger another thing: when our boys an' girls was grown,
And when, exceptin' Charley, they'd left us there alone,
When John he nearer an' nearer came, an' dearer seemed to be,
The Lord of Hosts, He came one day an' took him away from me!

Still I was bound to struggle, an' never cringe or fall---
Still I worked for Charley, for Charley was now my all;
And Charley was pretty good to me, with scarce a word or frown,
Till at last he went a-courtin', and brought a wife from town.

She was somewhat dressy, an' hadn't a pleasant smile---
She was quite conceity, and carried a heap o' style;
But if ever I tried to be friends, I did with her, I know;
But she was hard and haughty, an' we couldn't make it go.

She had an edication, and that was good for her,
But when she twitted me on mine, 'twas carryin' things too far,
An' I told her once, 'fore company, (an' it almost made her sick)
That I never swallowed a grammer, nor 'et a 'rithmetic.

So 'twas only a few days before the thing was done---
They was a family of themselves, and I another one.
And a very little cottage one family will do,
But I never have seen a mansion that was big enough for two.

An' I never could speak to suit her, never could please her eye,
An' it made me independent, an' then I didn't try.
But I was terribly humbled, an' felt it like a blow,
When Charley turned agin me, an' told me I could go!

I went to live with Susan, but Susan's house was small,
And she was always a-hintin' how snug it was for us all;
And what with her husband's sisters, and what with child'rn three,
'Twas easy to discover there wasn't room for me.

An' then I went with Thomas, the oldest son I've got:
For Thomas's buildings'd cover the half of an acre lot,
But all the child'rn was on me---I couldn't stand their sauce---
And Thomas said I needn't think I was comin' there to boss.

An' then I wrote to Rebecca, my girl who lives out West,
And to Isaac, not far from her---some twenty miles at best;
And one of 'em said 'twas too warm there for anyone so old,
And t'other had an opinion the climate was too cold.

So they have shirked and slighted me, an' shifted me about---
So they have well nigh soured me, an' wore my old heart out;
But still I've borne up pretty well, an' wasn't much put down,
Till Charley went to the poor-master, an' put me on the town!

Over the hill to the poor-house---my child'rn dear, good-bye!
Many a night I've watched you when only God was nigh;
And God'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray
That you shall never suffer the half that I do to-day!

Will Carleton, 1897

Dan Gunderson and Chris Julin of Minnesota Public Radio wrote: "The American dream is freedom and financial security. But it's possible to lose everything. One day you have a job, a family, a house. Then there's an accident, an illness, a poor choice. One misfortune piles on another. One hundred years ago, if you lost your health, or your mind, you might have faced the poor-house. It was a terrifying possibility - the slide from working, healthy person to the poor-house."

Growing up, I used to hear things like, "Careful what you do, otherwise you'll end up in the poor-house," or "Looks like I'm headed to the poor-house." As amusing as that might be, a poor-house reference is really no laughing matter. Most of us say we live there already. But, a century ago the poor-house was very much a reality.

According to the Adair County News.

August 8, 1900 - An old man whose name was Sloane, and who had been in the poor-house for several years, died last Sunday morning.

February 26, 1902 - The widow Burton and her little boy escaped from the poor-house Saturday and Sunday afternoon made their (court) appearance in Columbia. The little boy was sick and had walked himself down, looking more dead than alive.

October 12, 1904 - The Adair County Court did a righteous act last week when it elected Mrs. Leach poor-house keeper. She has heretofore filled the position, giving entire satisfaction.

September 29, 1909 - Mr. John Will Moore, who was a son of Dock Moore, died at the poor farm last Saturday. He met with a stroke of paralysis about three weeks ago, and being alone in the world, having no home, he was sent to the poor house by order of the Court.
By the late 1800s, there were thousands of poor-houses across the country and thousands of people died in poor-houses. Even though poor-houses began to disappear after the adoption of the Social Security program in the 1930s, some people wonder how far we've come from a time when poor people were simply thrown away.

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