The County Poor Farm System in Texas
DEBBIE MAULDIN COTTRELL*
O N AUGUST 11, 1928, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE HERBERT HOOVER
optimistically announced: "We in America today are nearer to the
final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land.
The poorhouse is vanishing from us."' Of course, events of 1929
proved Hoover incredibly wrong about poverty; indeed, the final tri-
umph over poverty still eludes us.
But Hoover's comment on the poorhouse was not erroneous; the in-
stitutionalized home for the poor did vanish, largely due to federal re-
lief programs and public welfare initiatives that grew out of the Great
Depression. Certainly these 193os' relief efforts have been scrutinized
and studied in great detail, providing an understanding of governmen-
tal intervention at a time of individual and national crisis. The story of
the poorhouse and its inhabitants, however, has received far less atten-
tion and remains a more mythical part of our past, conjuring up ques-
tions with often unclear answers. What did it mean to be unable to sus-
tain one's self but to live prior to the development of direct federal
governmental aid programs? What was life like for the poor and desti-
tute prior to the 1930s? How did poorhouses actually operate and who
lived in them?
Before post-Depression legislation, poor people in the United States,
especially those who had neither family nor friends with the means
to aid them, were dealt with primarily through a system that evolved
from seventeenth-century English poor laws. The system created a de-
centralized approach that resulted in a variety of programs for the
poor, but all generally provided minimal relief involving limited gov-
*Debbie Cottrell, who served as directorr of Publuatlons for the Texas Historical Commis-
sion from 1983-1987, is currently a graduate student in the history department at the Univer-
sity of 'Texas at Austin She is preparing her master's thesis on Texas edu(atol Annie Webb
'Arthur M. Schleslnger, jr, The Age of Roosevelt-The Cr s of the Old Order I919-r933
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), 89.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989 - April, 1990. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101213/. Accessed May 3, 2015.