Stuck in the Poorhouse: The Complexity of Poverty

Steuben County Asylum
Steuben County Asylum (author’s photograph).

The Steuben County Asylum near I-69 in northeastern Indiana represents two contrasting ideals of poverty care. On the one hand, this imposing building on the rural landscape embodied the modern ideal of an end to poverty through scientific principles. In spite of the U.S. industrial economy of the later 19th century, marked by frequent panics and recessions, a new poor care system held out the hope that all indigent persons could be retrained and readied to work in the modern industrial world.  The new system would provide a safety net supporting those through the hard years and would help impoverished people develop improved habits in a healthy and orderly atmosphere. On the other hand, this building symbolized failure and loss of place in the community. To be a resident of this facility required separation from society and often induced a lifelong stigma of shame.

These institutions represented both a severe solution meant to frighten the “lazy” into working harder and a belief in a safety net to support those living on the margins. [1] This was especially important in an era when layoffs were not supplemented by benefits like workers compensation. Across rural America, there was fear associated with the various names for asylums: almshouses, county farms and infirmaries, poor farms, county homes, workhouses, and “the pogey.”

The Indianapolis Journal, October 19, 1888, accessed Newspapers.com.

Traditional poor relief (after private charities and local churches were exhausted) fell to local government. This was called “outdoor relief” because the poor or destitute were helped where they lived. To contain costs, the sheriff might “warn out” (or throw out) potential pauper residents to discourage poor people from staying there. Officials often employed this method to keep immigrants, especially the Irish, from settling in their town.

If the family could not care for an indigent resident, a landowner might take that person in on the lowest bid for room and board.  By the 1820s, this informal arrangement was rapidly supplanted by an increasingly standardized system recognizing one place as a county poorhouse. The professionalization of these institutions focused on isolating each class of patient from what social reformers thought was the cause of their ailments or bad habits.  The system was intended to instill a culture of order on the disorder of their lives.  The enforced order would help cure the issues they faced. However, most residents used the farm only for periodic stays during times of unemployment and sickness.

In line with the rest of the nation, Indiana initiated its statewide system of county poor asylums.[2] In 1821, the state legislature approved Indiana’s first poorhouse in Knox County.  Following the national standards for poorhouse improvements, promoted in prescriptive literature, many counties built what were called “model homes” by the later nineteenth century.  These were modern buildings constructed to meet the current standards of that time. These asylums even provided libraries for residents to use in preparation for a changed life outside the asylum.[3]

County Poor Farm, Huntington, Indiana, courtesy of the Huntington City-Township Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Many rural almshouses were working farms, providing food for residents and a profit to the county government.  The Democrat newspaper of Huntington County praised its superintendent in 1871 for keeping the farm as an “almost self-sustaining . . . charitable institution.” Efficiency and thrift were valued far higher than any other management trait.[4]  These practices led to abuses of a very vulnerable group in society. To create a more orderly life for their residents, almshouses increased the level of isolation and separation in the homes.  This policy is reflected in the houses’ physical form as it changed during the 19th century.

The Democrat provided a brief glimpse into the Huntington County almshouse during February of 1871.  The paper listed 18 assorted inmates, but ten or twelve more typically resided there during the year.  Most residents were temporally admitted during sicknesses and job slowdowns.  Most poorhouses apparently hosted a few long-term residents and sometimes children were born there too.  The farm around the almshouse provided work for residents capable of manual labor.  One resident at the Huntington Almshouse was the full-time farm hand.  Others worked on the farm or in the almshouse kitchen.[5]

Between 1830 and 1900, four stages in almshouse design demonstrated a stronger commitment to scientific poor care.  The first stage involved converting a portion of a private house to accommodate paupers placed in the home owner’s care. The owners made no effort to separate the residents, and they were assigned farm work, as able, to help earn their keep.  The famous 1872 poem by Will Carleton “Over the Hill to the Poor House” was inspired by his experience at just such a home in Hillsdale, Michigan. The lack of family support, as well as old age temporarily landed elderly mothers in the poor house.[6]

In the second stage, the county purchased a farm to use for the care of the poor.  Other buildings might be constructed for dorm facilities for the majority of the residents.

The next stage was the first real attempt at building a custom facility for poor care.  The Steuben County Asylum, built in 1885, appears to match this third stage.  The strong center area indicates there was a public entrance with rooms for the County Superintendent of the Poor. There is room enough to separate men from women and to create the ordered environment that could be both helpful and oppressive.

Poorhouse in Adams County Indiana, courtesy of http://www.poorhousestory.com.

The fourth stage is the full scale, scientifically approved poor house.  As can be seen in the illustration above this facility is a massive element in the landscape.  The very obvious three-part construction is easy to recognize.  Some of you will have seen buildings like this around rural Indiana. They seem out-of-place among local farms.  They may be marked by a road name such as Asylum Road or County Farm Road.  The well-used 1911 textbook, The Almshouse Construction, and Management (written in Indiana) noted that asylums must be near the center of the region they serve, allow for complete segregation of the sexes, provide an abundance of sunlight and fresh air, and be designed for convenient access for administrators to the whole house. [7]

They are designed to house men and women in completely separate wings with public space in a center section.  Usually, the County Superintendent of the Poor lived in the upstairs of the center section.  Larger homes had infirmaries for men and for women.  This feature became more common in the early 20th century as the almshouse became more of an old age home rather than a place of refuge from destitution.

Jefferson County Poor Farm, circa 1915, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

When I first started researching this theme I interviewed staff at the Steuben County Asylum, which had been completely converted to a senior rest home.  The problem was that many elderly residents refused to consider living there out of the memory of what that building had once meant.[8]  Even in the 1980s, seniors related residency in the poorhouse with a loss of freedom and personal dignity.  The company managing the care facility failed to grasp the public memory of the County Asylum on that generation.  Ironically, the current generation of seniors (Baby Boomers) might laugh at residing in a former poorhouse perhaps as a way of poking fun at their elders’ fears.

County poorhouses should remain a visual reminder of the hazards inherent in reform efforts.  Even with good intentions, abuses of vulnerable people occurred.  The poorhouse had little to regulate it except mixed national ideals and local attitudes.  Torn between purposes of punishment and rescue, poorhouses failed to cure poverty.  The complexity of poverty caused reformers and politicians endless pains.  We might gain some comfort that citizens and politicians before us found poverty as difficult to manage as we do now.

 

[1] David Wagner, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution, (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2005), 19.

[2] Kayla Hassett, “The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability,” (Masters Thesis, Ball State University, May 2013), 13.

[3] See report by Henry N. Sanborn, “Institution, Libraries: The Outlook in Indiana” Forty-Third Annual Meeting Conference of Charities and Correction. (Indianapolis, IN 1916), 367-371.

[4] “The County Alms-House Its General Condition-The Number and Character of its Inmates,” The Democrat, (Huntington, Indiana), February 2, 1871, accessed www.poorhousestory.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Jerome A. Fallon, The Will Carleton Poorhouse: A Memorial to a Man, a Dwelling, and a Poem, (Hillsdale: Hillsdale Historical Society, 1989), 22-23.

[7] Alexander Johnson, The Almshouse Construction and Management (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1911), 8.

[8] Staff Steuben County Asylum interview by author, Fall 1994.

 

Further Reading

  1. Hassett, Kayla. “The County Home in Indiana: A Forgotten Response to Poverty and Disability.” Masters Thesis, Ball State University, May 2013.
  2. Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986.
  3. Thomas D. Mackie, “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse: A Glimpse at the County Farms of Southern Michigan, 1850s-1920s.” PAST, 21 (1998).
  4. Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. (Revised Ed) Boston: Backbay Books, 1990.
  5. Wagner, David, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Inc.,2005.
  6. A private research web page titled Poorhouse Story provides images, primary sources, and readings for poorhouses and related agencies around the United States. They can be accessed at http://www.poorhousestory.com.

Reeling in the Legend: A Quick Dive into the Creek Chub Bait Company

The Wiggler. The Pikie. The Darter. The Injured Minnow. These are just a few of the popular lures crafted by the Creek Chub Bait Company during the twentieth century. Established in Garrett, DeKalb County, Indiana in 1916, the Creek Chub Bait Company became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of artificial fishing lures.

Creek Chub Wiggler. Courtesy Fin & Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.
#2009 Creek Chub Darter in Greenback. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 73.

Each lure was a work of art, featuring the finest craftsmanship and attention to detail. From the company’s onset, owners Henry Dills, Carl Heinzerling, and George Schulthess placed an emphasis on quality for their products. Dills wanted the lures to be attractive to fishermen and fish alike, and worked alongside others within the company to ensure that they had a lifelike appearance and motion to help attract fish.

Creek Chub’s famous #700 Pikie, first introduced in 1920. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 65.

As early as December 1915, before the company officially began producing lures, Dills filed an application to patent new improvements in fish baits by adding a metal lip, or mouthpiece, attached to the front of the lure. According to the patent, the addition would help produce ripples, throw spray, wriggle, and dive similar to the way a minnow would, thereby attracting fish. The patent (1,352,054) was approved September 7, 1920.

Dills’ 1915 patent application featuring the addition of a metal lip to fishing lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

Creek Chub’s Wiggler, introduced in 1916, was among the first to feature the metal lip. According to Dr. Harold E. Smith in his Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, the company’s 1922 catalog advertised the Wiggler as “‘three baits in one.’ With the lip in the standard position, it was a diving, wiggling bait. In the reversed position, it became a water-splashing surface lure. Take the lip off and it was a darting surface lure.” Dixie Carroll also described the added movement to the lure in “Fishing, Tackle and Kits” in 1919, noting: “A small metal plate in the mouth of the chub gives a fine bunch of wiggles and wobbles and by moving the plate and reversing it you have a surface splatter lure . . .”

Dills’ 1918 patent application for the addition of imitation scales to improve the appearance of artificial lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

In July 1918, Dills filed another patent application to improve the lures by adding a scale-like appearance on their surface that would imitate a natural minnow. According to the patent (Patent 1,323,458), the lures would feature “a cigar-shaped wooden body, to which various coatings of coloring material are applied.” Employees used a non-lustrous color for the background body of the lure and then proceeded to wrap a cloth netting around it and spray a lustrous coloring material through the netting to form the scale-like pattern.

The scale finish evolved over time and helped revolutionize the industry by resembling natural food for fish. Advertisements in popular publications like Outing praised the lures, noting: “Accurately represents a minnow down to the silvery scales. Wonderful lifelike movements. Convertible.” Fishermen from around the country agreed, often writing to the company to boast of the record-size fish they caught using these lures.

Image: Dr. Harold E. Smith’s Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 279. In 1932, George Perry caught the world record largemouth bass in Lake Montgomery, Georgia using Creek Chub’s Perch Scale Wigglefish. The record stood for over seventy-five years. On July 2, 2009, Manabu Kurita caught a largemouth bass in Lake Biwa (Japan) tying Perry’s record of 22 lbs. 4 oz. According to articles in the Indianapolis Star in 2014, the International Game Fish Association took six months to verify the record. It became official on January 8, 2010.
Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123. Courtesy Google Books.
Zoomed in letter from George McWilliams submitted to Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123.

By the time a Creek Chub lure was completed and ready to ship to a customer, it often featured as many as fourteen or fifteen coats of primer, paint, and lacquer. Even the wood used early on for the bodies – white cedar – was of the highest quality. Over time, the designs and range of colors expanded greatly. The company also made specialty colors and custom orders upon request. In 1936, the Garrett Clipper noted that the patents for the natural scale finish and the mouthpiece were among the most important patents ever issued in the tackle industry.

Employees apply a scale finish to the lure bodies by spray painting through netting. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith,  Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 27.

From its earliest years, Creek Chub featured a largely female workforce. Some attributed this to the delicate nature of the lures and the work they entailed, which they believed women were better suited to perform. Dr. Harold E. Smith writes that “women were selected preferentially over men because management felt they were . . . ‘endowed with a better appreciation of color and detail.’”

Wanted ads in the Garrett Clipper frequently promoted jobs for girls and young ladies at the company, and articles often referenced the “girls” employed in the finishing departments, and sanding and dipping rooms.

Painting eyes on Creek Chub lures. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 28.

By the 1920s, Creek Chub was shipping its lures all over the United States and Europe. Between January and July 1925, the Garrett Clipper published several pieces on international sales. For example, on March 19, 1925, it reported that Creek Chub had recently received orders for 180 dozen bait from Stockholm, Sweden, 178 dozen from Finland, and 31 dozen from Toronto, Canada. In April, the paper recorded orders from Waines, Hawaii (Hawaii did not become a U.S. state until 1959) and Bombay, India, and in July, it reported that the company had shipped 24 dozen lures to Reddich, England.

Creek Chub Bait Company in Garrett, Indiana. Courtesy the Garrett Historical Society.

On January 20, 1936, the Garrett Clipper provided a summary of the company and described its continued growth since its founding in 1916:

Since then sales have increased from year to year and are made not only in this country and Canada, but lures are sent to 48 foreign countries, France and Sweden receiving the largest shipments. The sales demand in Canada is so large that a Canadian branch has been established, the work being conducted by Allcock, Laight & Westwood company, Toronto, Ont. Although in its infancy, the plant has been doing a large business and the prospects for its growth are fine.

1931 Creek Chub catalog. Courtesy Old Fishing Lure.

In 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, business at Creek Chub Bait Co. reached a new peak. Production and sales were up and employment remained steady. Despite its success though, the company was already beginning to feel the effects of the conflict abroad. Finland and England had been Creek Chub’s top buyers prior to the war, but both markets quickly closed as each country became engaged in the conflict. The company also purchased many of its treble hooks, which it used on its lures, from Norway and England.

By August 1941, Creek Chub experienced great difficulty acquiring the necessary hooks and other supplies for its famous lures, as materials were reserved for defense industries. Supply markets from Norway were shut off and an embargo on trade between the United States and Japan stopped the shipments of hooks from that country as well. On August 21, 1941, the Clipper warned about the future of Creek Chub, writing:

. . . unless there is some early change in the world situation the business of the company will be greatly restricted, if not entirely stopped.

Creek Chub Victory Bomber lure introduced in 1942. Courtesy Fin and Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.

The outlook for the company became bleaker throughout 1942 following orders from the War Production Board curtailing the manufacture of fishing lures. On May 8, 1942, the Angola Herald reported that Creek Chub would cease production on May 31, in accordance with government orders. In response, Creek Chub petitioned the War Production

Board to allow it to use the metal it had on hand, which it estimated at approximately six months’ supply. By early June, the War Production Board gave the company permission to continue manufacturing lures during the month, and throughout the summer it granted temporary extensions that allowed Creek Chub to continue production, albeit at a much reduced rate. On January 28, 1943, the Garrett Clipper noted that Creek Chub employed thirty people, two to three times less than it had before the war. Employment decreased again slightly the following year, but the company remained open, using the limited materials it had on hand to produce lures.

Popular Mechanics, May 1962, p. 204. Courtesy Google Books.

By January 1945, employment began to increase as more materials became available and in September 1945, Creek Chub received its first shipment of steel hooks from Norway since the beginning of the war. Business was slowly getting back on track. Wanted ads for female employees began populating the local newspaper’s pages once again as the company sought additional employees to meet production goals and fill the backlog of orders that had accumulated during the war. By late December 1946, Creek Chub announced that it had leased a hotel building in nearby Ashley, north of Garrett, and it soon established a branch factory there to expand operations. The added facilities allowed business to double from 1947 to 1948, and within the next two years the company caught up on its backlog of orders.

Courtesy Russell Lewis, Classic Fishing Lures: Identification and Price Guide, 2005, page 38, via Google Books.

Creek Chub continued to look for ways to improve and diversify its product line in the 1950s and 1960s. This included entering the plastic bait field, developing new saltwater lures, and offering new color combinations. The company’s future looked bright, but by the late 1970s declining sales and questions regarding future leadership of the company began to weigh on Creek Chub.

[Muncie] Star Press, April 6, 1979. Courtesy Newspaper.com.
On December 24, 1978, the Des Moines [Iowa] Register reported that Lazy Ike Corp. of Des Moines had purchased the Creek Chub Bait Company. Reporter Bob Barnet confirmed the sale in the [Muncie] Star Press in April 1979, writing “. . . Hoosier-owned Creek Chub Bait Co., one of the nation’s oldest and most respected manufacturers of artificial lures, has been sold.” Lazy Ike, which was also in the lure industry, would continue to manufacture and market Creek Chub lures.

[Des Moines] Register, September 16, 1979. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Unfortunately, within just a few months of the purchase, Lazy Ike filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Dura-Pak Corp. of South Sioux City, Nebraska acquired Lazy Ike Corp. and another fishing tackle manufacturer out of Vancouver, Washington in the early 1980s. Today, PRADCO owns the Creek Chub name.

Although the company closed in the late 1970s, Creek Chub lures continue to remain popular among collectors, a testament to their enduring quality.

Courtesy Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Summer 2002), page 20.