The County Poorhouse

Folks gather in front of the old county poor house that served as a home for many who had no place else to go.


The Overton County Historical Society can never be repaid for the work that group has done, and continues to do, toward  the preservation of the history of Livingston and Overton County.  One Saturday morning recently, I visited what was once known as the Poor House Cemetery recently saved by the Historical Society from total destruction.  With the help of Livingston Mayor Frank Martin who provided many city employees and equipment, the first round of hard labor involved in the restoration process has been completed.  The cemetery is located on Villa Drive, a street that used to be called County House Road.  Much work is yet to be done to get the cemetery put back together again, but through the diligent efforts of this concerned and dedicated organization, I’m confident it will be accomplished.  Ronald Dishman has complied a tremendous amount of information about the history of the County Poor House, some of which I will share as my journal entry this week.


An article that appeared in a newspaper known as the “Golden Age” dated September 1, 1915, includes an obituary titled “Henry D. Grannis.”  It reads as follows:


“A very sad death occurred at the county asylum last Friday evening when “Uncle” Henry Grannis passed away.  His body was buried in the county graveyard Saturday where Rev. Cook conducted a short service to his memory and where several friends had gone to pay their last respects to this unfortunate man.  Henry D. Grannis was about 80 years of age.  He was born and reared in New York where he is supposed to have relatives.  He came to Livingston some twenty-five years ago and worked at the carpenter trade as long as he was able.  He then served as sexton at the Methodist and Church of Christ churches until a few months ago when he got so feeble he had to give that up.  He was highly educated and had traveled much.  While a sailor, he had his feet frost bitten and lost most of his toes.  At time he feet gave him trouble, and he died from the effects of blood poison.  Very little is known of his former life.  He often spoke of his people but refused to go into details when asked about his immediate family.  Like many other men, his weakness was the love of whiskey, and in this case, it wrecked a useful life.  He left nothing but his tools.  For several weeks after he was confined to his room his friends provided for his needs, but finally he was persuaded to go to the county house where he could be taken care of.  It was with tears in his eyes that he consented.  After he began working for the churches, he seemed to soften toward religious matters, but he talked but little on that subject.”


In checking the definition of the word “sexton”, I learned that person was “an officer of the church who is in charge of sacred objects.”  It would be interesting to know just exactly what Mr. Grannis was in charge of in those two churches.


An obituary that ran in the Livingston Enterprise that same week had this to say about Mr. Grannis’ death:  “Henry D. Grannis died at the county house last Friday evening and was buried the following afternoon.  Mr. Grannis who was a New Englander by birth had been in Overton County for about twenty-five years and worked at the carpenter trade hire for a number of years.  He was a man of splendid education, and was a member of a fine family.  He was about 72 years old, and had not been able to do any work for some time previous to his death.  He was highly respected by all who knew him, and many will regret to hear of his demise.”


Mr. Grannis’s death certificate shows the cause of death as being “toxemia”. 


Another obituary printed in the Livingston Enterprise on April 14, 1933, tells of the death of a young lady living at the poor house.  It reads: “Miss Lee Johnson, 24, an inmate at the county home, died on the night of April 7, 1933, as a result of burns of April 2 when her clothing caught fire and burned from her body.  She was a daughter of the late James Johnson.”


Mr. Henry D. Grannis and Miss Lee Johnson are among those whose graves are in the poor house cemetery.  The sad part about those buried there is no one, other than Mr. Grannis, has a tombstone to indicate who is buried where.  And the only reason Mr. Grannis has a nice tombstone is explained in a newspaper article dated February 23, 1916.  The article, which was written to encourage advertising in the newspaper, says this: “If you would know what one successful business firm thinks of advertising, ask Robert Little, manager of the Livingston Marble Works.  From a very small beginning with little advertising, backed by fair dealings and honest work, this firm has built up a splendid trade in tombstones, monuments, etc.  A few days ago Mr. Little informed the writer that he had on hand twenty-five orders, and we know of several received since.  Among these was one from Miss Ella M. Grannis, East Haven, Connecticut, for her uncle, Henry D. Grannis, who died here last August.”


The number of graves in the Poor House Cemetery cannot be determined, but research of some death certificates show these names as having been buried there:


Joe Rayborn, single; date of death - 12/12/1954; age 74.

Rebecca Waddle, single; date of death - 12/11/1922; age 89; (1900 census shows this lady as living with a family as a servant.)

Rebecca McManners, single; date of death - 12/28/1922; age 70;

Joe Nation, single; date of death - 7/11/1925; age - about 56;

Sarah Hubert, widow; date of death - 2/13/1935; age - about 75;

Ann Peek, widow; date of death - 2/9/1935; age - 86;

Mitchell Ledbetter, widowed; date of death - 5/3/1937; age - about 90;

Susan Sidwell Brown, widow; age - 79;

Sarah Dice, widow; date of death - 2/1/1934; age - about 75;

Turner Stewart, single; date of death - 3/13/1936; age - about 51; (death certificate indicates this man was “found dead in bed - no medical attention.”

Sarah Phillips Oakley, widow; date of death - 2/3/1934; age - about 70;

John Holder, farmer; date of death - 5/10/1935; age - about 74;

Martin Hoover; widower; date of death - 3/15/1936- age - about 78;

Leonard Johnson, single; date of death - 11/9/1936; age - about 65.


James Robert Qualls, superintendent of the County Poor House, and wife Rebecca Stewart Qualls who served as manager for around 25 years during the 1920's.


  In a July 15, 1925 issue of the Livingston Enterprise, a very small paragraph was written about Capt. Joe Nation who was buried in the Poor House Cemetery.  It reads: “Capt. Joe Nation Dead” “Joe Nation died at the County House last Saturday night and was buried at the county graveyard Sunday afternoon.”

Many of the sunken, unmarked graves in the County Poor House Cemetery are quite obvious, and among them, there are several children’s graves. During the years 1926 through 1946, James Robert Qualls served as superintendent of the Poor House, and his wife, Rebecca Qualls was manager.  Rebecca Qualls’ notes contained in a Webster Composition ledger type book lists all the names of the residents who came and went during that 20 year time period.  Often a name listed is a single parent, and will also include the words “and children” with that parent’s name.  I couldn’t think of anytime sadder than to know that some mother or father had no place else to go to provide food and shelter for themselves and their children.



Then in the October 7, 1925 issue of the Livingston Enterprise, one of the headlines reads: “County House Burns” “Many Made Homeless” The news of the fire has this to say:


“Last Wednesday, about noon, fire was discovered at the County poor house, about a mile below town.  The inmates were at dinner when the fire was first discovered in the kitchen, catching from the flue.  The alarm was sounded the many people rushed to the scene with buckets and fire extinguishers.  The building was burned to the ground inside of thirty minutes after it was discovered.  Fire fighting equipment was of no avail as the building was an old frame and very dry.  This was one of the saddest scenes ever witnessed to see those old, gray headed men and women crying over the loss of their home.  It was some trouble to keep some of the inmates out of the house as they would go back to get some of their possessions that had been forgotten in the excitement, probably some trinket, or reminder of better days.  They were taken to the old school building where they were made comfortable.  It has not been learned where the new county house will be built.  The loss was estimated at $10,000.00.”


James Robert Qualls’ obituary that was printed in May of 1942 described Mr. Qualls as 71 years of age, and was a widely known citizen of Livingston.  He had been sick for several months prior to his death.  His funeral was held on May 11, 1942, at Ruth’s Chapel church by Rev. William Dycus of the Cumberland Presbyterian church.  The obituary went on to say that Mr. Qualls had been superintendent of the county asylum or “poor house” for most of the time during the past 25 years.  He was widely known for his honesty and integrity, and it was generally said that he was well fitted for the work that he had been doing.  He was survived by his wife, Mrs. Rebecca Stewart Qualls, three daughters, Mrs. R. M. Wolfe, Mrs. Winnie Savage, and Miss Willie Qualls; one son, J.P. Qualls; one sister, Mrs. Martha Watkins, and one brother, Golden Qualls, all of near Livingston.


The county home built to replace the one that burned was still in existence when I was small.  I can remember going there as a child with my mother.  She went there to visit Bennett and Mary Ann Smith who were our neighbors, and were also the care givers at the county home in the early ‘50s.  I didn’t like going there at all.  I thought of it as being a very scary place   The building stood near the present day location of the Villa Place Apartments.   There was always an atmosphere of sadness that seemed to hang over that old building like a dark cloud.    I suppose that same dark cloud was inherited from the earlier home where many sought shelter  after having no other place to go. 


That same feeling of sadness can be felt standing in the Poor House Cemetery today.  Within each of those graves was a person who met with hardships and heartaches along life’s journey, and in most situations, had no one to love them or care about what happened to them.  The fact that any reference to any of the residents at the County Poor House was with the word “inmate” shows how little those individuals were thought of.  Even the building was known in some instances as an “asylum.”    But thanks to the Historical Society, at least now, some long overdue recognition is about to happen.  Included in the plans for restoration of the cemetery will be a monument that lists the names of those persons buried in the County Poor House Cemetery.  Persons who have information about additional names not included here are asked to contact any member of the Historical Society so an accurate list can be prepared.  Prior to the monument be placed there, much hard work and physical labor must be done.  Shirley Key has already begun the placing of stones on some of those unmarked graves.  I’m sure she would welcome help with that project.  Should anyone want to visit the cemetery, metal steps were provided by the city to make access to the cemetery possible.  A nice sign with the name of the cemetery has been erected near the street.  Donations for the restoration and recognition of this very worthy project would be welcomed, and may be given to any Overton County Historical Society member.