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by Bryan Thompson, DeKalb Historian


From the very first town meeting in De Kalb in1806, Overseer’s of the Poor were elected. Who were they and why were their services necessary?

Despite the popular Hollywood movie version of life on the frontier where everyone was ruggedly independent and self-sufficient the reality was actually quite different. In an economy that consisted largely of hand labor no one individual could build his own house or farm the land without the help of a local work circle. Individuals without a helpful group could be very poor.

The original colonist did not arrive with a blank slate to write a new book of rules for society. Each colony’s laws were based on English Common Law.

Care of the poor was first codified into the Common Law by the Statute of Cambridge enacted in 1388. While providing means for the care of the potent and impotent beggars the law also restricted the movement of the poor outside their parish or town. This law established in law the principal of the local community being responsible for the care of its own impoverished citizens. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first, a series of laws were enacted to provide for the poor. These laws culminated in the Poor Law of 1601which mandated that each Parish (town in the colonies) would elect or appoint an Overseer of the Poor to handle poor relief at the local level.

Each community established a Poor Box to fund the care of the indigent in their community, thus as each English colony in North America was established, the office of Overseers of the Poor was also established. De Kalb had Overseers of the Poor and a Poor Box from the town’s inception.

Life was very different in the rural towns of New York at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There were very few banks. The closest bank to St Lawrence County until the 1820’s was in Utica. Town officials kept town funds in their homes. The Poor Box in De Kalb was literally, a box that money for the care of the poor was kept in. It was held in one of the two Overseers homes.

The early citizens of De Kalb took their duties as caretakers of the poor seriously. At the 1814 town meeting citizens appropriated $75 for the “use of the poor” and just $30 for the “use of schools”. In 1817 when the town built the first Kendrew Bridge, they had appropriated more money than was needed for the project so they voted to place the remaining balance into the “Poor Box.”

From year to year various amounts of money were appropriated as necessary. In 1818 $33 was appropriated, 1819 $40, 1820 $500, 1825 $500, 1826 $50. Excise taxes and fines charged by the Justice of the Peace were added to the Poor Box by law starting in 1828.

While the Supervisor and Highway Commissioners’ accounts were audited annually from the beginning of local government, there is no record of an audit of the Overseers of the Poor until 1833. That year the meeting voted to invest the excess money in the hands of the Overseer of the Poor at interest. This was not prompted by some sudden realization that the money might be put to better use if it accrued interest. Chapter 44 of the Laws of New York for 1830 passed the New York State Legislature February 22, 1830. It ordered the Town of De Kalb specifically to take $1000 from the Poor Box and deliver it to the Trustees of the Gospel and School Lots to be loaned out at interest for support of the common schools. The act also required an annual audit of the account. The law specified that the action be taken within six months of the act. The first recorded audit was in February 1833 a little bit more than the time specified in the law.

The Overseers of the Poor were responsible only for residents of the Town of De Kalb, others could be cared for at the will of the voters. On January 30, 1818 a special town meeting was called at the hotel in the village “for the purpose of taking into consideration the best means to provide for Mrs. Low who has begged for assistance from the town.” The meeting voted to have Seth Alexander, Overseer of the Poor, use money from the Poor Box to provide clothing for Mrs. Low and to pay her passage to Montreal. The meeting was necessary because Mrs. Low was not legally a town resident.

The first effort to move care of the poor from the town level to the county level occurred in 1824 when Chapter 131 of the Laws of New York allowed counties to establish County Poorhouses and assess the various towns in their jurisdictions for the services. This new system did not sit well with the citizens of De Kalb. At the annual town meetings in 1835 and 1839 they passed resolutions for the abolishment of the Poor House system.

The Overseer of the Poor was responsible for all types of care for the indigent from medical expenses to food, clothing, rent, heat, burials, and the purchase of school books. Once the railroad arrived in town there were many instances of keeping of tramps. In 1886 it cost the town 75 cents per night for dinner, lodging, and breakfast for a tramp. Medical bills for SA Sayer, a 72-year-old widow, were $25.50; groceries for the same were $6. Four dollars more was charged to take her to the Poorhouse.

Chapter 706 of New York Laws of 1887, called for the relief of indigent soldiers of the Civil War. This law required the town Overseer of the Poor to provide funding to the commander of the local G.A.R. Post for the relief of indigent soldiers. These funds were to be allocated at the discretion of the commander. In 1888 the town budgeted $52 for the Rich Post #468 of the G.A.R. The town would continue to provide these funds until the Great Depression. The budget for the care of soldiers changed each year depending on the number of veterans who were disabled in a particular year. In 1901 a special appropriation was raised for John Whipple who was unable to work due to paralysis. He was awarded a town stipend of $5 per week. The total veterans’ budget for that year rose to $480 before Whipple’s death.

Another responsibility of the Overseers of the Poor was to determine paternity of illegitimate children and assess the fathers for the support of the children until the children was no longer nursing. In 1885 Frank Healy, a 16-year-old boy from Potsdam, was assessed $125 for one year’s care. Not all these cases were easily settled and the town was responsible for the bill if the father did not pay up. In 1910 a case was started against I. Wilkinson. The case dragged on until he agreed in 1912 to settle the year’s support at $250. He finally paid the account in 1913.

At times you can see great compassion in the actions of the Overseer of the Poor. In 1911 you can feel the outrage at of the suffering of Miss B. Fordham of De Kalb Village who was had cancer of the face. Because of her condition, by law she was banned from admission to the County Home. The town arranged for her to be seen by Dr. Madill and have her cared for in a home in De Kalb. When C. Bishop was diagnosed with TB the town arranged for him to be admitted to the Sanitarium at Ray Brook and paid for his board.

In 1924 young James Gotham contracted polio shortly after he and his mother moved to Williamson, NY. Because of the one-year residency requirement, the town of De Kalb paid to have them relocated back to De Kalb. They covered his hospital care that year, and when he did not recover sent him to the Shriners Hospital in Montreal. He remained in the hospital in Montreal for several years and the town paid for the Supervisor to visit him there and report on his condition. By 1932 the town board voted to provide transportation for James Gotham to attend a business school in Syracuse at the town’s expense.

At other times the town was not so compassionate. In 1923 a Mrs. E. Smith and her child asked for help from the town. Because Mrs. Smith’s child was adopted the town board voted to send her to the County Home and try to send the child back to the orphanage whence he came.

In 1929 the New York State legislature passed the Public Welfare Act. "The term of office of each overseer of the poor of a town shall expire on December thirty-first, nineteen hundred and twenty-nine. Each town board shall, prior to that date, appoint its town public welfare officer in accordance with the provisions of section 24 of this chapter. Such appointment shall take effect on January first, nineteen hundred thirty."

The towns would no longer appoint or elect Overseers of the Poor; they were replaced by an appointed Public Welfare officer. The first such officer was Frank Thornhill. The town’s oversight of the care of the poor was largely transferred to the new county public welfare department. However, the town was still responsible for some financial support of its indigent population.

These changes transferred some of the town’s responsibilities to the County Welfare Officer but not all. The 1930’s were dark economic times for the whole country. De Kalb was not spared. At the monthly town meeting in November 1930 the De Kalb town board passed a resolution, “that the Supervisor appoint a committee of two to buy a tract of timber if necessary, to put the unemployed who apply for aid to work.”

By November of 1932 the town welfare fund had swollen to an appropriation of $3000. The De Kalb Town board voted to send letters of thanks to the “Missionary Society of the Richville Congregational Church and the Workers for Public Welfare of De Kalb Junction” for their assistance in aiding the poor. In the Fall of 1933 the Federal Government stepped in through the newly established Civilian Works Administration. The organization hired locally unemployed to work on the roads cutting brush and refurbishing the East De Kalb Highway building that winter. The town provided tools, supplies, and highway equipment for them to use. They built roads throughout that winter and rebuilt streets in Richville.

In 1934 the CWA was replaced by a state program known as the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (T.E.R.A.) administered by NYS using federal and state funding. The town was responsible for 25% of the TERA workers’ wages. During this time the town bought a stone quarry near Cooper’s Falls (site of current Town Highway Department). The relief workers were put to work running the stone crusher and stoning all the town’s dirt roads. The town’s total contribution for wages and supplies that year was $6, 247.50. That was the largest budget ever for poor relief in De Kalb.

In the following years as the depression eased the budget shrank. In January 1938 in a budget cutting move the town board voted to have Frank Rich, Town Supervisor, also serve as Welfare Officer. Rich resigned as Town Welfare Officer November 21, 1938, one month before his term expired. The town went back to having a dedicated Town Welfare Officer until the office was abolished.

As the economy improved the welfare budget diminished. Starting in 1946 through 1950 New York State passed a series of reforms to the Social Welfare Act gradually transferring the responsibilities to the County Welfare Officer and welfare district. Ira Ulysses Sayer was the last person to serve as Town Welfare officer for the town of De Kalb in 1950.

Care of the poor, that started out as a local community responsibility, 300 years before was now the responsibility of the county, state and federal governments.



  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1806 to 1845) Meeting Book One De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1845 to 1866) Meeting Books Two De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1867 to 1905) Meeting Book Six De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1905 to 1917) Town Board Minutes De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1917 to 1939) Town Board Minutes De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • De Kalb Town Clerk (1939 to 1950) Town Board Minutes De Kalb Junction, NY.
  • Intriguing History Poor Law England 1601
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1784 Chapter 35 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1830 Chapter 44 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1838 Chapter 202, 218 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1887 Chapter 655 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1888 Chapter 261 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1927 Chapter 641 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1929 Chapter 565 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1946 Chapter 200 Albany, NY.
  • New York State Legislature Laws of New York 1950 Chapter 200 Albany, NY.


Overseer of the Poor

  • Esek Whipple 1806
  • Timothy Utley 1806
  • James Farr 1807, 1809
  • Isaac Stacy 1807, 1808
  • Potter Goff 1808
  • James Cooper 1809, 1812, 1813
  • James Burnett 1810, 1811, 1812, 1814, 1815
  • John Ross 1810, 1811
  • Joseph Anderson 1813
  • Elias Alexander 1814, 1815, 1819
  • Thomas Tanner Jr. 1816
  • Joshua Sweet 1816
  • Joseph Rounds 1817, 1818
  • Seth Alexander 1817 to 1838
  • Gideon Townsley 1819, 1823, 1862 to 1869, 1881 to 1886
  • John Smith 1821, 1822, 1824 to 1838
  • Orin C. Spencer 1840 to 1843
  • Curtis Spalding 1840 to 1845
  • Artemis B. Lynde 1844, 1845, 1846, 1861 to 1865, 1872
  • Marshall Allen 1847 to 1850
  • Edward Alexander 1848 to 1852, 1859
  • John C. Rich 1851
  • Marshal Allen 1852
  • Cornelius Faville 1853, 1854, 1857, 1858
  • Danford Johnson 1853 to 1858
  • Asa R. Foster 1859, 1860
  • Levi Hemenway 1860, 1861
  • Elon G. Gardner 1866
  • Jerome B. Tuttle 1868
  • Isaac Walker 1870
  • Abner Breese 1870 to 1875
  • Elam Gardner 1871
  • C. R. Walker 1873, 1874
  • Horace White Jr. 1875, 1886
  • William Walker 1876 to 1883
  • James Johnson 1876 to 1879
  • Enoch P. Griffith 1884, 1885
  • S. A. Townsley 1887
  • Joseph Kennedy 1887 to 1895
  • Seymour L. Westurn 1888
  • Herbert M. Townsley 1888 to fill unexpired term of S L Westurn who died 9/25/1888.
  • Charles H. Holland 1889, 1890
  • William McCadam 1891
  • John Bennett 1892
  • DeGrasse Foster 1893
  • William L. Thomas 1895, 1896
  • Sprague C. Downing 1896 to 1900, 1902 to 1907, 1909 to 1915
  • William P. Hardy 1897 to 1907
  • Fred E. Gardner 1901
  • M. J. Johnson 1908
  • Homer Day 1909 Refused to qualify.
  • Charles W. Austin 1909, 1910
  • N. L. Fredenburg 1911
  • David White 1912 to 1920
  • Daniel C. Palmer 1917 to 1927
  • McGee J. Johnson 1920 to 1924
  • Samuel Elsey 1920
  • Frank Thornhill 1924 to 1928
  • ------ Patterson 1926
  • ------ Etheridge 1926
  • Town Welfare Officer
  • Frank Thornhill 1929 to 1934
  • Charles E. Burnham 1933 to 1935
  • Robert White 1936, 1937
  • Frank A. Rich 1938
  • Ira Ulysses Sayer 1939 to 1950





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