Shenandoah County Alms House
During the colonial period, this area was part of the area’s 230 acre Glebe Farm. It was owned by Beckford Parish, the local organization of the established Anglican Church. The property was used to support church operations and their minister, one of which was the Revolutionary War figure Peter Muhlenberg who did not live on site, but whose slaves worked the land.
After independence the established church was dissolved. In 1798 Shenandoah County citizens asked the state to turn the property over to the county. Their petition called for the appropriation of the land for “the sole use and benefit of the poor.” Soon after this the General Assembly ceded the property to the county.
The land then became the county farm. At the time, local government was required to care for the indigent population in their communities. A special board, called the Overseers of the Poor, assisted individuals and managed the farm to provide a place for those without homes. This system lasted until the 1930s, when the state began to assume responsibility for social services. However Shenandoah County continued to operate the county farm.
Initially residents lived in Glebe era buildings. In 1829 a new brick Alms House was built on the site. It was one of the few structures built in the state to serve this purpose. Originally, it featured a central block and two wings, one for males and one for females. Later, superintendent’s quarters were added on the southern elevation.
Orphans, those with mental and physical ailments, and the poor came here to live here. Some came for short periods, other for their entire lives. Inhabitants were expected to grow their own food and to produce a surplus that was sold to support operations. No matter one’s disability, you would be expected to work.
In 1909 the State Board of Charities & Corrections initiated an inaugural survey of the state’s poor houses. They reported Shenandoah County’s Alms House, which housed 31 residents, was “one of the best institutions in the state.” This is the first time an outside agency reported on conditions.
A Works Progress Administration report, funded by the Federal Government, made a strikingly different observation two decades later. Their report noted “bleakness pervades throughout” the farm. It is uncertain why conditions had changed so dramatically since the first report, or if the criterion for evaluation was different. However this description most likely reflects more accurately how difficult life was at the Alms House.
By 1990 the state and federal government had assumed almost all responsibility to social services in the area. Shenandoah County’s Alms House was still in operation, though it was the last in the state. This change in the way services was provided, and the fact there were only two residents at the farm, led county leaders to end operations in 1991. They transitioned residents into other institutions and then leased the Alms House to the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter to provide transitional housing services. The farmland continued to be managed by local farmers who had leased the land since the 1970s when residents ceased their work on the land.
This system continued until April 13, 2014, when an early morning fire destroyed the building.
Today the land is still owned by the county and used as an experimental farm by the Virginia Extension Service.