The beautiful spring weather last week drew me out-of-doors and took me on a field trip to find the Morgan County Poor Farm Cemetery. Drawn more by curiosity than necessity, I simply wanted to gain an idea of where the farm was situated. With Google Maps, a GPS, and vague description, I found more than headstones. I found purpose.
While at the Morgan County Court House two weeks ago, Kathy found a listing of 201 individuals buried at the Morgan County Poor Farm Cemetery. Published on April 7, 1975, the list was compiled by the Jacksonville Area Genealogical and Historical Society but claims to be incomplete. A detailed description of the cemetery in 1975 describes the existence of two burying grounds, located about a half a mile apart. According to a story in the July 15, 1897 Jacksonville Journal, the old burying ground consisted of “at least 100 sod covered mounds… each wooden slab marker.” In 1934, the Morgan County Commissioners set up the second cemetery for the internment of “indigent persons,” until it was abandoned in 1956. As it was the one visible on county maps, this second burying ground was the object of my search.
Written forty-one years ago, the description provided some clues:
“The site is marked by a red oak tree and flat leaf cedar tree along the east edge… cement blocks mark the graves, numbered from 1 to 75, in two rows along the east edge of the cemetery. The area is in poor condition and apparently receives no maintenance.”
I’ll pause here to say that I’m not providing detailed directions because I was unsure whether this field trip took me across private land. Had I known where I was headed, I might have left it well alone. I left no trace of my visit and am always mindful of “no trespassing” signs (none were visible). Out of respect to the owners of the adjoining lands, I encourage my readers to take my word for it and keep a respectful distance. If I return, it will be with a guide.
But, back to the story: I headed past lowing cattle toward a stand of trees, where I passed what appeared to be a cement property marker. The chatter of birds and insects reminded me that I was far removed from town. Pushing back waist-high brush, another cement marker appeared. And then another. The words “poor condition” and “no maintenance,” don’t capture the eerie sense of isolation and neglect.
Each marker had a unique number, but the 1975 report indicated that “a search for records of who is buried in each particular grave has been unfruitful.” Nonetheless, they list they complied provides hints at the lives those markers represent. When possible, they listed the individuals’ birth and death dates, occupations, marital status, and any other available information. Most of those interned at the poor farm (primarily in the first cemetery) were laborers, servants, widows, the elderly, and infants born at the farm. In their time, they were considered indigent and therefore undesirable within the community. In our time, condition of the cemetery shows that little has changed.
Of the 201 individuals, at least fourteen were infants. Nineteen were listed as “negro,” including “Aunt Josie,” a former servant who died in 1883 at the age of 93. She had no surname listed. Many were immigrants, born in Ireland and Germany. What is certain is that they all had a story. The second cemetery was abandoned in 1956 and it was not until 1975 that the memebrs of the Genealogical and Historical Society did the painstaking and vital work of simply tracking down the names. Yet upon reading the report, one senses that they believed their work to be unfinished.
There are moments when, as a historian, I wonder whether my work does much real good in the world. As I knelt down through the brush and witnessed the remnants of the county poor farm, I was humbled by the prospect of telling the stories of those forgotten on the peripheries of society.