Fact Friday 187 - The City's Original "Poor" House

Fact Friday 187 - The City's Original "Poor" House

Happy Friday!


QC Pour House, "The Neighborhood Spot," opens this spring and we're happy to have done some branding work with them. But the historian in you should know that the original house of similar pronunciation existed for a very different purpose. 

Indeed, today's "hot spot" for musicians and artists is NoDa, sometimes comically mispronounced as "no-duh" by newcomers.

But during the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, it had the largest concentration of textiles mills in the United States. Stepping back even further, NoDa was rolling farmland and a large part of the W.W. Phifer estate.

Mecklenburg County also owned some of the land, which contained a water-processing plant and the county's "Poor House," to house the ill, elderly and impoverished. In the 18th and 19th centuries in the US, tax payer supported county poor farms, also known as poor houses or almshouses, existed to provide assistance to the unfortunate. These “farms” provided housing and support for those in need and pre-dated the current Social Security system developed in the 1930s.

Poor farms are not an invention of US ingenuity. Poor houses date back to Victorian times as a government answer to poverty, often even used as a punishment for the downtrodden. Charles Dickens described poor houses as reformatories where inmates were subjected to hard labor. 

Admission was both voluntary and involuntary, as was release. Entire families were often admitted together. Sometimes, children would reside at the farm but other times they would be given to local families for care, thereby separating families in this time of crisis. Birth certificates of babies born at the farm often listed their birthplace as “poor farm”.

Able residents were required to work on the farm. Many poor farms had their own cemetery. These cemeteries are sometimes known as “pauper’s field” and contain no headstones or outward identification other than a rock. Other poor houses used nearby church cemeteries to bury the deceased. According to a 1904 government report summarizing North Carolina poor house laws, the board of commissioners for each county was authorized to “ Provide for the maintenance and well-ordering of the poor and to employ biennially sane competent person as overseer of the poor”. These persons must live at the “county home” or other place as designated by the board of commissioners. The residents had to be cared for at the expense of the county, but were to be released as soon as practical.

In 1829 and again in 1830, the Mecklenburg County Court authorized citizens to buy land “for building a poor house” and then for constructing the structure itself. (Minutes, Book 7, p327; Book 7, p.380) It opened in February of 1833, as this job announcment for a steward shows. (Miners' and Farmers' Journal, January 26, 1833, p.3) The announcement also stated that the Poor House would be located "2 1/2 miles east of Charlotte," which would place it at the modern-day intersection of North Davidson and 36th Streets. Late nineteenth-century records establish that intersection as the spot for a rebuilt Poor House that operated until 1903. The 1833 newspaper notice supports the hypothesis that the second one was built at the same location as the original. 

Mecklenburg County Poor House Job Announcement


1833 newspaper notice


Mecklenburg County followed the models of "indoor relief" and "outdoor relief" simultaneously: It maintained a poor house, which in the census of 1850 (first pagesecond page) and of 1860 (first pagesecond page) showed no more than a half dozen residents, while at the same time authorizing direct payments to citizens on a case-by-case basis. In 1870, the Board of County Commissioners decided to regularize the system once and for all and to offer assistance only through the poor house.

1850 Census of the Mecklenburg Poor House

The 1870 Census (first pagesecond page) showed 28 inmates, including, for the first time, eight African Americans. All of the inmates, which included four whole families, were identified as "Paupers."

In that same year the Board authorized the construction of a new poor house east of Charlotte. The approach to it was known as “Poor House Road.” A detail from an 1888 map of Mecklenburg County shows the “Poor House Road” running eastward away from town. The road ran parallel to the railroad, just south of it, following the path of the road later called The Plaza. The poor house itself is marked with a filled-in circle between the road and tracks. In 1902 the County sold the site of the old Home to the Highland Park Manufacturing Company, which would erect a cotton mill on it. (Orr, 1888)

Poor House Road, later named The Plaza


The 1880 Census showed 26 inmates, nine of whom were African American. All the inmates were individual adults. Instead of being classified as "Paupers," they were labeled by physical or mental condition.

Artist depiction of the Poor House.
Note: This depiction is interesting. The faces are deliberately darkened to give the impression that the majority of individuals present are African-Americans, which is contrary to the census records over several decades, which confirm only a small percentage of the residents were black. 

In theory, such an arrangement could provide better care for less expense. In order to achieve this goal, the people of the county had to agree to view the destitute, decrepit, and distracted as everybody’s problem. Housing them separately, though, took them out of sight and made it easy to think of them as nobody’s problem. A popular nineteenth-century poem, “Over the Hill to the Poor-House,” about a widow whose children refused to care for her, captured the dread of the poor house as a place where people went to be forgotten. (Carleton, 1872) It was so well known that a headline in the Charlotte Daily Observer could use it in quotation marks without attribution: “They’ll Not Go ‘Over the Hill to the Poor House’,” (Dec. 10, 1893.)

Until next week!


Email me at chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

Information taken from:

"Shaded by the Trees, Hidden by the Leaves", Haley Twist, Niner Times, November, 2012.   

"The Poor House" - Chapter 3, "Indoor Relief In Mecklenburg County

"Question the Queen City: The Forgotten History of NoDa", David Aaron Moore, Creative Loafing Charlotte, September 6, 2013. 

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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