By Susan M. Thigpen © 2001
Online: January, 2001
Sarah and Abner "Junior" Graham's dream would seem like someone else's nightmare. Imagine moving into a large neglected property in the country that is very run down and then working like dogs to restore it – not only the main house to live in, but all the outbuildings that go with the property – as a living history book. Their dream would be a large amount of work (which the Grahams have done themselves) and the amount of money it would take to do it would be the nightmare! And yet the Grahams realized their dream when the Department of the Interior National Register of Historic Places listed their property in June of 2000! The Grahams had already been notified that the Wythe County Poorhouse Farm was included in the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1999.
In April of 2001, they were pleased to be approved for a Virginia State Landmark road sign that was unveiled in a ceremony June 16, 2001 at 1:00 p.m. There was also a dedication ceremony of the new Poor House Farm Cemetery memorial marker at that time.
Wythe County Supervisors authorized the money for the road marker and the cemetery marker was donated by Grubb Funeral Home and Wytheville Monument Company in Wytheville, VA. Their help is very much appreciated. (Click here to go to the National Poor House website. It will open the Wythe County Poorhouse Page about the new road sign, cemetery marker and television coverage.)
The history and architecture were studied by Kali Lucas, University of Tennessee (Anthropology Department), world traveled archeologist Lyle Browning of Midlothian, Virginia and the staff of VA Dept of Transportation, Bristol office.. Their attention and efforts were instrumental in getting the Poor Farm listed on the National Register of Historical Places and the Register of Virginia Landmarks, which have very strict standards. The Poor Farm registered very high scores for requirements on both, being one of the best examples in the entire country. Local historians, John Johnson, Mary Kegley and Linda McHone Spiker are also very complimentary of the efforts to restore the Poor Farm.
It's an interesting story and the Grahams are interesting people. I'll introduce you. Sarah Helen Johnstone Graham and Abner Bruce Graham Jr. describe themselves as childhood sweethearts and have been happily married since 1963.
Abner Bruce Graham Jr. is the son of Abner Bruce Graham Sr. and Ethel Marie Adams Graham, of Max Meadows, VA (His parents are buried at West End Cemetery in Wytheville, VA) ... and he is the grandson of Luemma Adeline Dean Graham (Locust Hill Area, Wythe County, VA ) and Andrew John Graham (They are buried at the Hurst Cemetery, Wythe County, VA). Abner Bruce Graham Jr. is the Grandson of Hugh Preston Adams and Lula Bell Mize Adams, of Max Meadows, VA (they are buried at West End Cemetery in Wytheville, VA).
Sarah grew up just over the hill from the Poorhouse Farm on the large Johnstone farm, which is still being farmed by the Johnstone family. They first began working on their dream of restoring the run-down Poorhouse Farm property in 1992. In 1993, they moved into the large "overseers" home and started work on all the rest.
To give you a good idea of what the property is like, first let me tell you the history:
The land was designated for use as a Poorhouse Farm by the county of Wythe in 1858. Different men were used as contractors to build the main house and eight little two room cottages behind the overseer's house. The brick for the cottages was made of concrete and it crumbles easily when unpainted and exposed to weather.
There is a cemetery – Pauper's Field – that is connected to the Poor Farm property. Although many people were buried there, there are only two grave markers in it. Many of the funerals were arranged by John Porterfield, Rich Brothers and G.L. Armbrister. Wythe County paid the expenses. Rich Brothers made fine furniture, but they also made pine coffins. Graves were marked with wooden crosses or a field stone. No doubt the records are in the Wythe County Courthouse, under death certificates. It would be nice to collect them someday and place a marker on the cemetery property with all the names engraved on it.
At the time the Poor Farm was established (1858), there were no social security checks so the County took care of the people. The Wythe County Board of Supervisors were the governing body that was responsible for the 340 acre project. Sometimes, the Board came to the Poor Farm and held their meeting and had a meal cooked at the farm. It was noted the food was always good. The Poor Farm had a strong spring that is still in use.
Elderly and disabled people lived there and there was no discrimination – it housed blacks, and according to David Saferight, an Indian. There were two known Confederate soldiers who lived at the Poor Farm and received a pension. One was named Hugh Warf; the other was Jesse Venable. Some of the people who lived there were widows and orphans. The Poor Farm was usually peopled with the elderly and widows – people who had no means of support. They even provided a few of life's little luxuries such as a tobacco allowance
It was operated as a Poor Farm until 1957 – 99 continuous years.
When the Poor Farm was sold in 1957 at public auction (by this time, there were very few residents – most people went to government sponsored nursing homes or on welfare), the farm was used as a chicken farm that sold both chickens and eggs. Latter the pauper houses were used to house calves, sheep and pigs. By the time the Grahams began their dream to restore the Poorhouse Farm in 1992, it was in pretty sad shape. Most of it needed extensive restoration. Everything was returned to its original condition, as much as was possible. Well meaning friends urged them to tear down old out buildings and remodel the "big house" instead of restoring it. There was no big fund to do this work, so the Grahams did all of it themselves.
The cottages did not have kitchens – the people who lived in them came up to the big dinning room on the back of the overseer's house to eat their meals, unless they were not able, then the meals were brought to them. In the turn of the century photograph, you can see a small building in the foreground that is one of the several outhouses that were scattered around the property. There were only eight two room cabins, but the Grahams say that they never heard of anyone in need ever being turned away; they just made room and took them in.
The cottages had electricity installed in later years, but never had bathrooms. There is no electricity to the cottages at present, but a few of the old electric lines remain from cottage to cottage. Each cottage had two rooms which were 16'X16'. Each room had a small porch, a door and two windows. There were fireplaces or stoves in each room, with the chimney being centrally located between the two rooms on the common inside wall. Although there were only 8 tiny cabins with two rooms each, at times they accommodated up to 56 "inmates," as the 1870 census reported.
The Poorhouse Farm was a working farm with cattle, hogs, chickens, sheep and huge fields of grain, apple orchard, and garden vegetables. They were able to produce so much of what they needed that they only bought kerosene, matches and sugar.
There were two tenant houses and families lived in them to help work on the farm. Their salaries were paid by Wythe County. Two families who lived as tenant farmers and worked at the Poor Farm were the Cassell/Crigger and Jackson/Cannoy. They both were there long term and a lot is known about them. Children of Will and Annie Cassell Crigger had were Bill, Allen, Jimmy and Trinkle. Little Ethel in the photograph at the right was their only daughter. One of the original tenant houses still stands.
The farm had everything to make it as self sufficient as possible – a granary to store the grain until it was taken to the Makensaw Mill to be ground into flour and a corn crib to store dried corn, a barn with eight stall for horses. (In the beginning, they had several teams of work horses and a riding horse and buggy.) The farm had a log house for the hogs, with storage area above the hogs. There was a two-story smokehouse for hams and bacon where they could hang 36 hogs. It also had a wash house with a chimney in it and a large black iron pot to wash clothes and make lye soap.
Doctors were contracted by the county to minister to the sick. One of the first was Dr. Gibbony and one of the last was Dr. Randy Chitwood, who delivered a baby there in one of the last years in the 1950s. There was a house, set aside from the others by a large distance that was called the "pest house." It housed people who had a contagious disease such as tuberculosis. Meals would be taken down to a tree near the stream, Shoestring Branch, and the dirty dishes picked up there, so contact would be kept at a minimum.
Shoestring Branch flows into Cove Creek near the Wythe County once owned woods, where fire wood for the Poorhouse Farm was cut. According to oral history, this section of the Poor Farm was known as the "new ground." The waters of Cove Creek flow into Reed Creek and eventually end up in the scenic New River.
Notes from the Grahams showed that the overseer was paid $400 a year in the 1920s. The overseer at that time was William Allen Crenshaw, who married Sarah Graham's great aunt Bessie Vance Johnstone.
Bessie Vance Johnstone Crenshaw and William Allen Crenshaw, Sarah's great Aunt and Uncle and most of her family are buried at St. Johns Lutheran Church Cemetery in Wytheville, VA Every Christmas there were individuals and groups that visited the people living at the Poor Farm and brought them presents. There was a Christmas tree that was set up in the large dining room. Travelers often came by and spent the night at the Poor Farm in the early days.
The shed bordering on Peppers Ferry Road at the driveway entrance to the Poor Farm was once the county's tool and machine shed. Horse drawn equipment was kept there to maintain the (at that time) dirt roads. The shed was much larger than it is today, but when they widened the road in the 1950s, part of it was removed. The machinery was auctioned in 1957. It's possible that some people in the area still have some of the old horse drawn equipment that was bought at the sale.
In 1998, when Peppers Ferry road improvement was started, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to help protect the foundation of the old shed. When the state took over the upkeep of the roads, the Poor Farm kept machinery and tools in the shed.
Two of the large tables used by the Poor Farm in the dining area are in the basement of the Bethel Church. An original meal chest belongs to a Johnstone family member.
The old Bethel Community School once stood along Peppers Ferry Road on Poor Farm property across from the tool and machine shed near the entrance to the Poorhouse Farm. Children from the Mudlick, Lovers Lane, Bethel Community (Stringtown), Peppers Ferry Road area, children from the tenant farmers as well as any children that might be residents of the Poorhouse Farm went to this two room school. Some of the teachers there were Bessie Topham Johnstone, Edith Topham Umberger and "Ms Willie" Grubb Umberger Tavenner. "Ms Willie" celebrated her 92nd birthday at the Poor Farm in 1998. She gave the old school bell used in the Bethel School to the Poor Farm.
A list of what you will see in the renovated 2 Room Cottages:
1A – Olde General Store - Contains Bethel Community Store history and old country store items, including 1919 country store invoices from the old Spraker Brothers Store.. 1B –1800s-2000, Contains Graham, Johnstone, Dean, Cassell, Morris, and Poorhouse Farm Cemetery Records and Maps.. 2A - The porch represents the County Tool and Machine Shed and has a display of old tools and a copy of a poem by Sarah Helen telling of the history of the shed. 2B – 1980s and 1990s history with a Halloween theme. 3A – 1930s History with a Christmas theme 3B – Contains items representing old church, school and infirmary. 4A – Children's playhouse (Assortment of toys ) 4B – 1920's history with a Thanksgiving theme. 5A – 1940s Veteran's wall of honor and antique Christmas 5B – Library room – Pictures, albums and articles (1800-2000) 6A – 1950s History with an Easter theme. 6B – Wall of Honor, Poor Farm, Bethel and Mudlick history. 7A – 1960s and 1970s history with a Valentine's Day theme. 7B – Used for storage at this time. The Grahams hope to restore this room soon for the Living History Book. It will be numbered Page 911. 8A – 8B – The ghost of time??? The only cottage not renovated.
[UPDATE 11/02/03: Sarah and Junior now own the cemetery land. They are working on a list of people buried there and at present there are over 40 names on the list! As soon as the list is available, it will be posted to this site. They are currently working on a grant to fence the cemetery.]