I’ve been participating in a social media challenge called 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. It’s an effort to encourage learning about and sharing our various family histories in small, doable chunks. Participants are given a weekly prompt to start them on their way. Earlier in the year, one of the prompts was “census.” This is what I wrote.
(Disclaimer: I am not descended from Hardy Watkins. In fact, it’s unlikely he had any descendants. That’s why I want to tell his story. When Granddaddy became the superintendent of the Johnston County, NC, County Home (aka poorhouse) in 1930, Hardy was already there.)
If Hardy was like most folks who were relegated to the poorhouse, no one ever came to see him. Maybe he had no family at all. But neither the absence of visitors from the outside world nor his developmental disability did anything to dampen his enthusiasm for life. He was a good-natured, cheerful sort—until he was pushed too far. Then he’d curse a blue streak. He never missed a service at the nearby church—always sat in the front row. He couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, but he sang his heart out on every hymn, always with hymnal in hand, even though he couldn’t read the words.
I grew up hearing tales about Hardy from my dad and his brothers, who lived in the poorhouse during Granddaddy’s tenure there. Whenever our family gathered for reunions, Hardy’s name inevitably came up. He was discussed with animated affection.
This is the tale they shared most frequently. On the rare occasion the boys could scrape a few coins together, they thought it was a hoot to offer Hardy a choice between a penny and a dime. He always chose the penny because it was bigger. At least that’s what they thought. They were grown before they figured out what he surely had understood all along: if he’d ever taken the dime, they’d have stopped playing the game. Instead, he maintained a growing collection of their pennies. It took a while, but with that realization, the brothers finally got their comeuppance.
I got curious about Hardy. I asked my genealogy-savvy husband to check the poorhouse census records. All these years I had thought Hardy was a kid near my dad’s age. But we discovered that when my then nine-year-old dad showed up at the County Home with the rest of his family, Hardy was forty-seven. He was born in 1883. Why, Hardy was even older than Granddaddy! We also learned that Hardy had arrived at the poorhouse long ago—sometime between 1900 and 1910. So, he had been there at least twenty years, perhaps closer to thirty, when Daddy’s family moved in.
According to newspaper reports, poor nutrition marked poorhouse fare in the early years of the twentieth century. Before Granddaddy took over management of Johnston County’s poorhouse, fruits, eggs, milk, and other dairy products were a rarity for the residents. Surely, such a diet would have a negative effect on one’s longevity. I already knew that for the average person born in the late 1800s, like Hardy, the average life expectancy was only forty-two or forty-three years. That got me to wondering what happened to Hardy.
Census records from 1940, the most recent available, showed Hardy was still living at the County Home. He would have been fifty-seven at that time. He had already defied the odds. Further exploration led to the discovery that, in spite of all the cards stacked against him, Hardy lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine.
At the time of his death, Hardy was still in an institution. The poorhouse was no more. But the building was still there, having transitioned to a privately-operated care home for the aged and infirm in the mid-1950s. So, though the operation of the facility changed hands, it’s quite possible that Hardy stayed put. My bet is he lived all his days since arriving at the poorhouse in the same place, maybe even the same room. (Well, not quite. A new building had been constructed in the early 1920s so he would have moved at least once, though only a few hundred feet.)
Over time, poorhouse records seem to have disappeared. Only the rare newspaper article and a few official reports remain to provide any poorhouse history at all. Hardly anyone is left to tell the stories of the people who lived there.
If he’d had a chance, I wonder what Hardy might have told me about his life at the poorhouse, about his family, about his relationship with my dad and his brothers. About how he defied the odds. What was the rest of his story? Just like the rest of us, Hardy—and everyone else who lived at the poorhouse—had stories to tell. We’ll never know what they were. But they deserve to be honored.