From vagabonds to vacant

Empty Alms House has been refuge for the poor, Civil War hospital

Empty Alms House has been refuge for the poor, Civil War hospital

May 11, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Evidence of Maryland's early social welfare efforts and Hagerstown's Civil War roots lies at a vacant brick building on North Locust Street.

What happens to that building, Alms House, hinges on whether enough money and favorable support can be drummed up to save it.

Until that happens, Alms House will just sit there, empty and unused.

Centuries ago, Alms House offered refuge for Washington County's poor and was a repository for people at the fringes of society. Vagrants, beggars and vagabonds were sent to Alms House to be "reformed," according to records in the Maryland State Archives.

Historical records suggest Civil War soldiers were buried on the property.

Today, Alms House is an empty, vacant building owned by the City of Hagerstown. Developers passed on it. City officials want to save it, but at the moment, there's not enough money to restore it.


"We want to save it," said Larry Bayer, community development manager for the City of Hagerstown. "If we have to hold on to it for awhile, we will."

The social significance of Alms House is tied to its association with early efforts in Maryland to provide relief to the poor, said local historian Pat Schooley.

According to records in the Maryland State Archives, almshouses were the primary public institution for the destitute. The concept behind almshouses were punitive. Initially, people who lived in almshouses had to wear badges with a letter "P," for pauper, according to state records.

The 1796 general assembly proposed that an almshouse be built in Washington County. The almshouse would serve poor people and would function as a quasi-jail for vagrants, beggars and vagabonds, according to state records.

According to records from the Maryland Historical Trust, Washington County's Alms House was built in 1799 and 1800 to fulfill this need.

Back then, the conditions at almshouses weren't the greatest. Hagerstown's Alms House was no different, Schooley said.

Thomas J.C. Williams, author of "A History of Washington County, Maryland," first published in 1906, wrote of a place where people were chained to the floor. The Alms House was damp, dirty and had a bad stench.

Several records from the state archives and at the Washington County Historical Society reference an account written by Dr. C.W. Chancellor, who was secretary of the Maryland State Board of Health.

In 1877, Chancellor visited several almshouses throughout the state.

According to the Maryland Historical Trust records, Chancellor found 110 inmates living in Washington County's, with as many as six people in a room. The Alms House was filthy and lacked bathrooms and proper ventilation.

"Surely the enlightened people of Washington County will not endure this place much longer," Chancellor said in his report to the governor.

As a result of Chancellor's report, a new almshouse was built on a farm in North Hagerstown. The last of the dwellers of the old Alms House were moved to the new location in 1880, according to a registry of Alms House inhabitants.

Land records from Washington County Circuit Court show that ownership of the abandoned North Locust Street Alms House changed hands several times after it closed. Most recently, it was used as an apartment building, Bayer said.

The city purchased the building in 2004. There were plans in 2005 to tear down the building and turn it into a parking lot. The suggestion came from Bayer's office.

"At the time we made that suggestion, we weren't aware of its historical significance," Bayer said.

After members of the City Council opposed tearing down Alms House, the city focused its attention on trying to get developers to acquire the property. But the city was never able to negotiate a deal, Bayer said.

Recently, there have been talks of turning Alms House into a Civil War museum. Civil War-era newspaper clippings suggest Confederate soldiers were buried at Alms House and that it might have served as a place of medical care for soldiers during the war.

The idea of creating a Civil War museum in Hagerstown has been kicked around for years, but, most recently, City Council members Kelly Cromer and Penny M. Nigh brought up the idea of turning Alms House into a museum.

Nigh said the proposal would fit into the city's plan for extending Hagerstown's arts and entertainment district.

But Nigh said that outcome depends on whether federal money becomes available and whether they are able to get enough support for the idea.

"I will fight for that tooth and nail," Nigh said.

About this series

Editor's note: This is the second story in a bimonthly series about local preservation efforts, an exploration of what motivates people to preserve historic sites or not to preserve them and how these decisions affect us all.

Here's what's coming up in the series:

· Foultz House, on the grounds of the Albert Powell Hatchery, Hagerstown

The 19th-century stone house is vacant and is owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

· Price's Bridge, spans Conococheague Creek near the Pennsylvania border.

The deteriorated five-arch stone bridge was built in 1822 to replace a wooden structure and is typical of early 19th-century bridges in Washington County.

· Brumbaugh-Kendle-Grove farmstead, near Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Structures on the site were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Herald-Mail reported that federal agencies want to demolish the site because its proximity to the airport's new runway extension poses a security threat.

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