The Alms House (8/17)


The poor citizens in Adams County relied on their families and extended families with informal support from the churches. However, these sources were insufficient and the citizens could not offer more assistance.

The Pennsylvania Poor Law, 1771, stated the municipal overseers were responsible for maintaining and employing their poor residents. What municipal facilities existed, if any, in early Adams County is unclear. Hoping to save money and teach the poor, Adams county voters requested the passage of a county almshouse act “for humane purpose” of public charity in early 1817. Governor Snyder signed the Adams County law on 24 March 1817. There were three elected directors to run the poor district. A director served one term (one year) in that position.

The Almshouse opened in 1819 to care for the poor. The county purchased 91 acres north of Gettysburg and an additional 65 adjacent acres on what would be the Old Harrisburg Road. This land provided the core of the almshouse complex. The first brick building was for the steward, the manager, who was responsible for the paupers and the poor farm. Other buildings were the almshouse proper, the infirmary and the insane hospital. The main building was a two-story brick structure, as was the insane building.

The infirmary housed the county’s sick. Capacity of these structures was 125 people. This structure was used until 1961 and ended with the construction of Green Acres, the Adams County Home.

The county developed a farm as part of the Almshouse. The farm was to be self-sufficient and cover all expenses of the Almshouse. Paupers’ numbers tripled from 1830-1839 and the Poor District found the existing facility was insufficient to house them. A brick hospital was added in 1838 as demand fell as the economy recovered and the district found they had space to house its paupers. In spite of that, another brick building was added in 1845, which was in response for the separation of the poor, sick and mentally ill the dominant groups in Almshouse.

The first day of action in 1863 of the Battle of Gettysburg occurred on the Almshouse grounds. The artillery batteries of Gen. Oliver Howard’s Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac formed a defensive line based on the masonry of the building complex. The line formed to fight off an assault by the Confederate Army of the Northern Virginia from McPherson’s Ridge to the west. The Eleventh Corps fell and retreated to reserve position on Cemetery Hill while Confederate General John Gordon’s Fourth Brigade halted at the Almshouse. The location of the inmates is unknown but it is likely they retreated to the basements of the buildings for shelter as officials had little time to move them.

The barn was used during the battle as a field hospital, providing treatment to wounded soldiers before they could be evacuated to a more substantial medical facility. The Almshouse steward found his carriage and harness was commandeered by a Confederate soldier “who wanted his Buggy and Harness to haul his wounded father to Virginia.”

Battle damage to the Almshouse buildings was minor as there were no claims made to federal or state governments.

The Almshouse will be the topic of discussion at the upcoming Cumberland Township Historical Society meeting Sept. 11.

Elsie Morey is chairman of the Cumberland Township Historical Society.