By AMANDA BEAM
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Towering on a hill near Sam Peden Community Park, the old Poor Farm remains standing, a testament to both the charity and, at times, the malice of the local people. For more than 100 years, the structure has housed those children, elderly and mentally challenged citizens of New Albany and all of Floyd County who could not provide for themselves.
Despite a 2008 vote by the county to tear it down and construct a new youth shelter in its place, no definitive plans have been made on the Poor Farm’s fate. In 2012, the shelter was moved to a different facility and, ironically, a poor economy has delayed the razing of the decrepit historic building.
Few early records can be found that detail the beginnings of the community “poor house.” But almost since its inception, the county, through its residents, had set aside money to be used to help the indigent. According to Rich Green, a researcher that studied the building for a local company and released his findings in the “Review of Literature and Historical Documentation of the Floyd County Infirmary, New Albany, Indiana,” the farm began in 1838 as a lone log cabin. In 1875, a bigger structure was constructed with additions added in 1878. Fire caused by an ignited flue during a storm destroyed a significant portion of the complex in 1916, with the current standing building being built shortly thereafter.
Called many names through the ages, including the County Poor Asylum and the Floyd County Home for Aged, the building has housed some interesting New Albany citizens. Former slave turned Union Army nurse Lucy Higgs Nichols died there in 1915. While Nichols would be interred in West Haven Cemetery, the grounds around the home have served as a burial ground for many of these poor inhabitants. Green found evidence based on ground contour that at least two separate graveyards may have existed specifically for the institution, including that of the marked Potter’s Field.
Although an asset to those in need, the facility also drew stigma from the local citizenry. In a November 1878, New Albany Ledger Standard reported about the charity’s Thanksgiving menu of chicken pot pie. Apparently not everyone agreed with the food choices.
“Let not a taxpaying curmudgeon begrudge them this little taste of the luxuries of life,” the article said. “Their lot is a hard one, their fate a sad one, and if a ray of comfort can be made to shine upon them in the name of charity let them have it and welcome.”
Another New Albany Ledger Standard account a month earlier detailed the lives of the 45 “inmates.” Most seemed happy, the reporter said, with the biggest complaint being the lack of tobacco. Mental illness was noticed too, and not necessarily described in the most gentle of terms.
“One was a silly young woman, the shape of whose head left room for only a thimbleful of brains, and this poor unfortunate creature kept up a constant, imbecile sort of a smile that was sickening,” the unnamed author said.
In a January 1880 New Albany Ledger Standard news article, the paper actually lists the names, birthdates and diagnosis of those in the “insane asylum” to quell fears from the local populace. Causes of the afflictions included religious excitement, heredity, old age and trouble and hardship.
Although the building’s fate currently remains in limbo, a preservation drive was organized in 2008. However, major repairs would need to be made before the old Poor Farm would be inhabitable again to any organization. But some people consider the protection meaningful given the history of those less fortunate entering through its doors.
“This was their home,” said local historian Vic Megenity to the Floyd County Commissioners as documented in a Jan. 17, 2008, article. “Please don’t tear it down.”