GENESEO – Margaret Balcom is someone who appreciates the value in knowing where she’s come from.
To that end, she’s spent the past three decades trawling through all manner of public records to learn what she can about the family members that came before her.
The amateur genealogist was understandably interested last week when the Livingston County Historian’s Office announced it had identified 326 people who’d been buried at one of the county poorhouse’s two cemeteries – including four members of Balcom’s family.
“For me, it’s everything,” said Balcom, who learned her great-great-grandfather, Luke Balcom, and three cousins were among the 326. “...just knowing that maybe they’re resting in peace, they’ve been acknowledged.”
Before the advent of Medicaid in the 1960s, the county poorhouse – also referred to as the alms house and, later, as the county home – served as a refuge of last resort for the indigent, those who couldn’t care for themselves, widows and single mothers, orphaned children and those with mental illness who, in the past, were often described as lunatics, idiots or the insane.
County officials assembled at the poorhouse cemetery off Millennium Drive, about 100 yards north of the Oak Valley Inn and Suites, on June 30 to mark the occasion and pay tribute to those who are buried there and at the other poorhouse cemetery about a quarter mile to the east, near the intersection of Volunteer Road and Route 20A. The ceremony also included an unveiling of a historical marker denoting the location of the poorhouse buildings.
Deputy County Historian Holly Watson said the ceremony felt like “a little but of a culmination.”
“It’s a milestone for sure to be able to release the names of the people we do know who are buried here, release those to the public for the first time because people have asked about this cemetery for many many years wondering ‘why are there just numbers here?’ Now we can finally match a name to a number,” she said. “It feels really nice to be able to give a little bit of dignity to the people who are more than just a number – absolutely.”
County Historian Amie Alden said identifying those people who are buried in the poorhouse cemeteries is an “essential” part of documenting its and the county’s history, though she admitted doing so often reveals a painful past.
“Too often, the negative aspects of poverty and mental illness and many other subjects have been swept under the rug and ignored. This is a detriment to our society for in order to improve our circumstances we must understand the past and what has brought us to this moment in time,” said Alden last week. “Today is not just an opportunity to honor the people buried here but to remember and to recognize them as human beings – men, women, and children who had names and who are deserving of a place in our shared history.”
17 years in the making
Last week’s ceremony served as a significant milestone in the years long effort that began in 2004 when Alden was formally appointed to the county historian position. At that time, Alden took possession of a trove of social services records that had languished in the bowels of building 3 on the county’s Murray Hill campus in Mount Morris for decades, out of the reach of the general public and historians alike.
“My office immediately started the process of indexing and cataloging the records so we would be able to match names with the initials on the markers in the newer poorhouse cemetery along Volunteer (road) that was discovered when the road opened up in 2001,” Alden explained. “And that was just the beginning.”
As is the case with seemingly all the projects Alden takes on, more and more records started to trickle into her office as word got out that she and her staff were looking to learn more about the county poorhouse and those that lived, worked and died there.
“Since 2004, we’ve acquired thousands of documents and yet we still have a lot of gaps and more questions,” Alden said.
In 2010, when the owner of the old county poorhouse buildings off Millennium Drive decided to sell, they invited Alden to come over and collect the county’s old public welfare records that were still being stored there.
“At first glance I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that had been left behind,” said Alden. “After several decades, the files were just a disheveled mess but after close inspection, I realized the thousands of records – bills, vouchers and correspondence – had intrinsic historic value.”
Alden boxed the records up and brought them to her office where, for the past decade, staff and volunteers have labored to organize, index and analyze them to revelatory results.
“Through data analysis, primarily thanks to Deputy Historian Holly Watson, over 1,100 people who died at the poorhouse were identified since the poorhouse was established in 1829,” said Alden. “...to date, over 320 have been identified buried in the poorhouse cemeteries.”
Many of those 326 people are buried beneath some 135 numbered marker stones in the poorhouse cemetery off Millennium Drive.
Watson, the deputy county historian, said a record of deaths from 1877 to 1926, recovered in 2004 from the collection of documents stored in building 3 on the county’s Murray Hill campus, was a tremendous help as she went about the process of matching the names of those who’d died at the poorhouse during that 49-year span of time with specific numbered grave markers.
“That period of time I feel is the best documented,” said Watson. “It made our jobs much easier. It relates actually to most of the numbered stones we see in this cemetery here.”
Watson said poorhouse staff usually, but not always, buried one person per stone.
“On a couple of occasions its seems like they used the same number for more than one name,” she said. “And there could have certainly been people that are not even listed in the book that are buried here That’s where we have to say we have identified a lot of people but there could still be others that are not known.”
Some of those unknown people could even be buried – and in fact, probably are, said Watson – in unmarked graves in the vicinity of the Millennium Drive cemetery.
“Actually the other day I was just noticing in certain places you can see very slight little indentations where the grass is slightly longer and greener – that is a sign that there could be a burial there,” said Watson.
To that end, Watson said the county historian’s office is working on getting a ground penetrating radar survey done of the cemetery and surrounding area. Such a survey would give a better indication of whether there are other, unmarked burial sites in the area.
There’s also the possibility, said Alden, that human remains are buried in an area on the other side of Route 20A, south of the brick structure at 4222 Lakeville Road, near where the county poorhouse was located prior to 1850.
“We estimate… there were several hundred people who died there and were likely buried there,” said Alden. “Through our research, we found that they were not transferred to this side of the street in 1850 when the county moved the poorhouse.”
During the June 30 ceremony, 20 speakers took turns reading the names of the 326 people identified as having been buried in one of the two poorhouse cemeteries. The reading took about 18 minutes. The first person that can be definitively identified was buried in one of the cemeteries in 1874, said Alden. The last was interred in 1940.
Among the names read aloud were those of Balcom’s great-great-grandfather, Luke, and three of her cousins – Rosetta, Caroline and a third identified in records only as an infant with the last name Balcom. All three died in infancy.
County records show the infants’ mother, Laura Balcom, was unmarried and destitute when she first came to the poorhouse in 1869. Over the years, she was readmitted a number of times for reasons ranging from “bastardy and destitution” to prostitution and “debauchery.”
Laura Balcom gave birth to her three children who would go on to die and be buried in the poorhouse cemeteries in the late 1870s and early 1880s. For Margaret Balcom, learning more about Luke, Laura and her three cousins is something of a double-edged sword.
“While it can be very rewarding to learn about your history and family, it can also be very heartbreaking,” she said. “These are kids that – their life was what? It breaks my heart so I have to set it aside.”
Balcom sometimes finds herself wondering what her ancestors were like, what events influenced and shaped their lives, how they ended up at the poorhouse, with nowhere else to go.
In Luke’s case, county records offer a clue in noting he was admitted to the poorhouse at one point in the early 1900s for intemperance and Peritonitis – a medical condition marked by abdominal inflammation that can be exacerbated by alcoholism.
But even those hints prompt tantalizing questions. In conducting her own research over the years, Margaret Balcom learned the Balcom family started Livingston County’s first taxi service in Dansville and did well for themselves. If, as the county’s records suggest, Luke Balcom became an alcoholic, what set him down that road in the first place and how did he reach a point where he could no longer care for himself?
“That’s what starts it,” said Margaret Balcom of the thoughts and questions that flick through her head. “What happened to him? It’s very frustrating.”
That feeling of intense wondering is something Watson can relate to.
“Oh absolutely. All the time. All the time,” she said. “There’s not much you can really say. Sometimes you can find a few dates of interest, sometimes if they did this or that during their life. Beyond that, it’s really hard to say who they were as a person. That kind of thing just isn’t written down unless you get a journal - if you’re really lucky.”
But there’s always the possibility of more discoveries, said Watson.
“I’m actually kind of hoping for that,” she said. “It would be wonderful to fill in some of the gaps that we don’t have - especially prior to 1850 and even 1877 as far as residents of the poorhouse are concerned. We just don’t have many records so id love to see more come along.”
And while the research will continue and records about the poorhouse and those that lived, worked and died there may come to light, Alden said it’s unlikely the full story of the place will ever be told.
“Sadly,” said Alden, “their voices and all of the others - including the many staff workers at the county home and poorhouse - have probably been lost to history for all time.”
For Margaret Balcom, that’s OK. She’s taken solace in the healing that’s come with knowing Alden, her staff and volunteers have identified all those they could – including her relatives.
“To me, knowing their names - even if I don’t know exactly where they’re buried - they’re recognized. They’re acknowledged,” she said.